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