Failure: An Important Part of a Psychologically Healthy Childhood

Recently I was on a sports field and overheard heard this conversation between a mom and a coach:

Mom: “Coach Jim didn’t make the all star team. Did they tend to pick older boys?”

Coach: “Ahhh, not really. Older boys are often more skilled, and so more of them were chosen, but some younger talented boys were picked too.”

Mom: “What do I say to him? I don’t want him to be crushed. I think I’ll just say that they were choosing older boys this year”

Coach: “Whatever you think is best.”

On this same ball field, as is the case all across America, children are routinely praised for poor outcomes. A kid grounds out weakly without advancing a runner and hears “good hit Colin!” A girl pitches ball four to load the bases and is told: “good pitch Sarah!” Moreover, kids receive positive feedback on a very high proportion of plays (in my neighborhood, well over 90%).

Is it easy to understand why this happens. No engaged parent is more happy than her least happy child. When one of our kids hurts we hurt worse, so it’s natural to try to avoid the pain that failure brings. Moreover, we are very interested in making sure that our kids have a solid self-esteem and are concerned that failures, or an absence of consistent positive feedback, may leave our child falling short of developing well.

However, what we sometimes fail to realize two things: (1) failure is a critically important part of a psychologically healthy childhood and (2) too much praise dulls it. I once asked a panel of child mental health experts on a TV program I host. “If it were possible to raise a child into adulthood and make sure that she never failed at anything would you want to do it?” Everyone on the panel instantly declared “no” as such an adult would be handicapped when inevitable failures come along. Moreover, praise that is vague, inaccurate, overdone or overstated loses its impact and can actually have detrimental effects.

Let me focus a little bit on failure and review some of the benefits it offers:

√ Failure helps a kid to understand what her true talents are (i.e., if one is praised for every outcome, even the bad ones, it is more complicated to discern one’s true capacities).

√ Failure provides the opportunity to learn how to think adaptively about failing and how to respond effectively to it. Sure, I might be able to protect my child from the notion that he has failed (e.g., by stating falsehoods) for much of his childhood, but at some point the world will visit failure upon him. Better for him to learn how to think about it and respond to it early on, before dysfunctional attitudes and coping styles might develop, and when I can have a greater impact on how he responds to failure. Moreover, I certainly don’t want to condition my child to believe that she is owed a good outcome simply because she is a good person who means well and tries hard.

√ Failing offers the opportunity to learn a very important psychological formula: crisis = pain + opportunity. None of us likes pain, of course. But is it not woven into the fabric of all of our lives? Part of being resilient is to recognize that pain, to paraphrase a poet, is like a dragon guarding treasure; and, the fiercer the dragon the more valuable the treasure. However, the dragon must have its way before the treasure can be accessed. Time after time I’ve seen examples of resilient kids and families taking the hit and, because of the hit, coming out on the other side stronger, wiser, more effective and happier.

A few suggestions for those moments when your child produces a poor outcome:

√ Sometimes no comment is the best comment. For some kids striking out can be as upsetting as having a fly land on their nose. It may not need to be remarked upon.

√ If a comment is needed, sometimes waiting is advisable (e.g., for my child to become more responsive, so that it is less public)

√ Don’t lie or exaggerate. This is not the same thing as saying everything on my mind. But, when I do speak I want it to be truthful. This strengthens my long-term credibility and models virtuous behavior.

√ Provide empathy when your child is hurting without qualification. “That hurts doesn’t it.” “I could see why you’d be upset over that happening.” “It hurts to not be able to come through for your team.” Keep the butts off it initially (e.g., “…but you’ll get ‘em next time”). This can be especially difficult for we lunatic-parents to endure (i.e., we love our kids so much it makes us crazy), especially when our empathy leads to more opening up about the pain. But, tolerating this is a gift we give our children.

√ After feelings and thoughts have been vetted consider whether a plan of action is warranted: drilling, studying, problem solving, etc. If the failing represents a painful pattern think of it as a problem to be solved.

√ Value things like effort (e.g., your child hustles even when a losing outcome seems inevitable) and character (e.g., you child congratulates an opponent for a good play, lifts up a team mate who was feeling down) making sure that such comments are tied to specific examples.

√ Keep praise for effective performance proportionate, especially when around others from outside of the family.

I realize I’m hitting only some high points here. A much more complete accounting of these issues, together with stories that illustrate the points, can be found in my parenting book Working Parents, Thriving Families. I’ve also written a blog entry titled Five Questions for Effectively Parenting Kids in Sports. Finally, if your child has a pattern of responding to failure that is consistently impairing (e.g., public displays of anger, inconsolable and persistent sadness) consider seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional.

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