12 Ways to Encourage Failure and Why You Definitely Want to Do it

Newborn-22

Now why in the world would I suggest that you’d want to encourage your child to fail? Well, current research is telling us interesting things about which character traits are associated with lifelong achievement and success. It’s also showing us that these “traits” are not simply inborn, but can be actively taught.

Character traits like grit, perseverance, and tenacity turn out to be much higher predictors of accomplishment than test scores, grades, or even IQ. It turns out that even smart kids who lack these skills often end up leaving college without a degree or have a difficult time holding down a job. On the flip side, even children who aren’t academically gifted can achieve great things if they have the drive and tenacity to keep reaching toward their goals.

So, how do children learn something like perseverance? They learn it through experience. About six months ago I noticed that if my daughter wasn’t able to do something on the first try, she would throw herself down and cry in frustration, refusing to try again. “I can’t do it,” she’d intone through her tears.

For a while I wasn’t sure how to respond to her upset. I didn’t want to encourage her to stuff her feelings of frustration, but I also knew it was important for her to learn to persevere. And then I read, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough. What an enlightening read!

After absorbing a bunch of new information, I decided to offer some reassurance and to encourage Julia to keep trying, even when she didn’t succeed initially. I said things like, “Just keep trying and eventually you’ll succeed,” and “Everyone makes mistakes.” After a few weeks, I knew these messages were getting through to her because one day she failed at a task and instead of the usual meltdown, she calmly announced, “Sometimes you have to try more than once before you succeed.”

So I decided to make a list of quick and easy ways to encourage failure.

Here it is:

1) Acknowledge and challenge, “Wow! You did it! Want to try something even harder?”

2) Encourage, “I know you’ll succeed eventually if you just keep trying.”

3) Offer a demonstration, and then let them try “Would you like me to show you how? OK, now you try.”

4) Suggest a new strategy, “When I get frustrated, sometimes it helps me if I walk away and try again later.”

5) Share your observations, “I see that you’re using your right hand to hold it and your left hand to push it through.”

6) Ask for a lesson, “Hey, I noticed that you’re able to do ______, will you please teach me how?”

7) Discover their strategies, “How did you decide to do it that way?”

8) Present a problem, “I need your help to figure this out, how do you think we should go about solving this?”

9) Remind them of past challenges, “Hey, remember when you were littler and you couldn’t climb up the jungle gym? And now it’s super easy for you!”

10) Help them keep track of their accomplishments, “Hey, you can do it now! Do you want to add this to your list of accomplishments?”

11) Remind them that circumstances can alter the outcome, “I know you were able to do it last week, but right now you’re hungry and tired and that makes things more difficult. I’m sure if you try it again after a snack and a rest you’ll have better luck.”

12) Celebrate the failures,Hooray, you failed! That means you’re trying something really challenging. I feel so proud when I see you trying something difficult. You’ll always learn more if you continue to challenge yourself.”

Do any of these seem foreign to you? If so, you might have some work to do on your own relationship to failure. Remember, when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he tried 10,000 things chemical compositions that didn’t work, before he found the one that did. Here’s what he said about his so-called failures. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Now that’s the epitome of grit, perseverance, and tenacity.

And no matter what your child ends up doing, these character traits will serve her well. So this week, see how many of these 12 you can implement with your kids. And then watch as they develop more resilience and tenacity before your very eyes.

Have a fantastic week, and even if you don’t, find a way to learn and grow from the challenges you face! Warm hugs, Shelly

Photo by Suzette Hibble

9 comments
tirzah
tirzah

Great article. Mistakes and failure are to be welcomed as teachers, I agree. What a great list to encourage children during a challenge. In reponse to WendyPriesnitz: I don't believe the spirit of your article is to set children up to fail or to ask them to do things we know they can't. Rather, encourage them to go out of their comfort zone. Challenge them. My toddler constantly seeks to do things that are physically impossible for him and if he discovers he can't then he will ask for help. (Accepting help is also important.) On the other hand my toddler says, "I can't" or "Help me" when I know it is something he can do, so I let him struggle until he blissfully announces, "I did it!"

roseant
roseant

I was afraid to push or even bring up the subject but I think I will try these tools and see what happens. Thanks.

roseant
roseant

Great advice. I am going to put it to the test with summer bike riding lessons.  My son is 8 and should have given up those training wheels long ago.

MindyRanney
MindyRanney

I have been exploring the idea of failure as well lately!  Both with my kids and myself.  It's really interesting, and hard to practice on myself because of all the conditioning to the contrary.  

But I am VERY encouraged with my kids.  My 4 yr old daughter says almost daily "mistakes are how you learn, mom."  And my 6 year old son now says, when he sees another kid good at something he's not good at (such as swimming) "they have just practiced more than me."  

Occasionally during a meal or in the car we'll play "What mistake did you make today?"   It's awesome, because it gives us a chance to apologize for being mean to someone else  in the family as well as a chance to acknowledge and celebrate mistakes.  And i think it really impacts the kids to hear me point out mistakes I make (forgot something at the store, got angry with someone and yelled, left the house too late and made us late, etc.) 

I truly believe how you deal with mistakes is really a key to being successful in life.  In all areas: Socially, emotionally, professionally, and others I'm sure.  I think your self confidence is tied to what you tell yourself about mistakes. So the more GENUINELY positive we can be in discussing them the better off our entire family will be.  

Thank you for the great reminder, Shelly!  I know what I'll be focusing on tomorrow and hopefully often! 

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

@tirzah Thanks so much for your kind words. I agree, it's not about setting unrealistic expectations, it's about encouraging a striving spirit. I am smiling so big imagining your toddler saying, "I did it!" what a joy.

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

@roseant Great plan! I love imagining him working through the challenge and emerging triumphant. A first two wheeler experience is so freeing and exhilarating! One thing to note though, make sure he knows how to stop once he gets started! I have a vivid memory of running into a fence at "high" speed because I couldn't remember how to stop :) I was fine, but it was scary! Have tons of fun, Shelly

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

@WendyPriesnitz Hey Wendy, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your article! Have a lovely day, Shelly

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

@MindyRanney You're so welcome Mindy! Thanks for sharing your story. I love hearing about how you're all celebrating your mistakes and it's so exciting to know that you're instilling a growth mindset in your children already. Maybe they'll never struggle with perfectionism like I have or be convinced they're just naturally not good at something. What a beautiful gift! "Mistakes are how you learn, Mom" I'm definitely going to remember that one. Big hugs to you and your whole family!