Teaching Children to Fail Well

a cartoon cat golfing, but swinging and missing

So much of what we do as parents, coaches, and educators is focused on helping kids succeed. Ace the test. Make the team. Pass the class. Win the game. Get into college.

In my work with students, I teach them how to get the right answers, study effectively, and be productive, all so they can be successful students.

Every summer, I co-teach a class called “Parenting for Academic Success,” showing parents how to better support their kids at home.

Success, success, success. That’s the goal.

But what if that’s the wrong place to focus?

Perhaps, what we actually need to do is teach children how to fail.

The True Challenge of Education

Vice Admiral James Stockdale was a fighter pilot who got shot down during the Vietnam War. He spent nearly eight years as a prisoner in North Vietnam. During his time as a POW, he saw many of his fellow prisoners give up and die because they were psychologically unable to handle the long, painful ordeal. But, as the ranking officer among the prisoners, he led many others through those tough years, helping them rise to the challenge and survive.1

Stockdale became famous for the leadership and Stoic resolve he displayed in that POW camp. He learned the hard way how important it is to be able to handle whatever difficulties life throws at you. So when I heard his thoughts about what parents and educators should focus on, I paid close attention:

“The challenge of education is not to prepare people for success but to prepare them for failure.”2

Preparing Children for Failure

Success is great, but you can’t count on life being an unbroken string of successes. There will be problems. You will make mistakes. You will fail.

And failing hurts. It almost always catches us off-guard. And then, because we’re unprepared, we don’t handle the failure well.

A toddler crying on the ground after falling on his knee.

We get frustrated with the world and with ourselves. We feel wronged. We feel ashamed. And we take the wrong lessons from failure:

  • Failing means I’m not smart enough, strong enough, or talented enough, and I’ll never be good enough.
  • Failing means I should just give up.
  • Failing means I’m a failure.

These thoughts are symptomatic of a fixed mindset. And they’re as unhelpful as they are wrong. Children need to learn to reject this line of thinking. And they need adults to show them how.

Responding to Failure Well

Better, growth-minded responses to failure include thoughts like these:

  • Failing means I need to use different strategies, seek out resources, and ask for help.
  • Failing means I need to keep practicing and try again.
  • Failing at something doesn’t make me a failure. Failure is an event, not an identity.

It is critical that children learn how to respond to failure in this way. Without this mindset, they will avoid challenges in order to avoid risking failure. Or, if they do risk something challenging and fail, they’ll give up and never try again. Without this mindset, they cannot learn and grow.

The Necessity of Failure

“Learn to fail or fail to learn.” –Tal Ben-Shahar3

To learn anything, you have to start as a beginner. And the fastest way to move past being a beginner is to make mistakes and learn from them. Human nature has primed us to learn from failures precisely because they’re painful.

When a child runs around without watching where their feet are going, trips, and skins their knees, their brain eagerly learns how to avoid this mistake in the future. When you’re learning to ride a bike, and you crash, your brain becomes convinced that it needs to learn how to balance.

Both of these examples show the necessity of risk. You can’t truly learn to ride a bike with the training wheels on. You have to go for it before you’re ready.

a boy taking a jump on his bicycle

Learning most any academic subject requires risks as well. You try reading aloud, even though you don’t know all the words. You attempt math problems, even when you’re unsure of the right steps. You speak up in Spanish class, even when you might mispronounce things. You go for it, fail a little, and learn.

For these reasons, it is essential that parents and educators teach children to fail well.

Modeling

As usual, leading by example is one of the most powerful strategies available.

Don’t try to present a façade of perfection. Be open about your own mistakes and failures and what you’re doing to learn from them. Show your kids that a bad day can be good data. Show them how to take risks in spite of your fear of failure. And show them how to fail well through the way you live.

Don’t Rescue

Although children can learn a bit about how to handle failure well by watching others, there’s no substitute for learning through living.

So don’t rescue your kids from failures, unless they’re life-threatening. Let them try things on their own, stumble and fall, and practice dusting themselves off. And failing well is a practice. It’s best to start small, with the minor failures of a typical childhood, slowly building up the mental calluses that will prepare you to handle the larger and larger setbacks that come with age.

Of course you want to protect your children from failure, but someday – sooner than you’d like – you won’t be able to anymore. As your children turn into teenagers and adults, they will experience painful failures. And if they don’t have any practice because you’ve always rescued them, these higher-consequence failures will be devastating.

So start letting them fail now, so they can learn to fail well.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stockdale

2 Stockdale, James. Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. Hoover Institution Press, 1995.

3 https://bigthink.com/videos/how-to-fail-well/

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