On Psychology

Jewish World Review Feb. 5, 1999 /19 Shevat, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

Failure Today Can Lead to Success Tomorrow

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I am the mother of two, an eight year old girl and a six year old boy. Both of my children are very athletic and like sports a lot. My eight year old is an especially good swimmer. In competitions, she almost always wins, or at least comes in second place.

Recently, however, her swim team went to a regional competition and she came in fourth place out of twenty or so swimmers. I thought that was pretty good, but she was devastated. When the other girl was awarded the trophy, my daughter started to cry and wouldn't stop. No matter what I said, she just kept on crying. What could I have done to make her feel better?

A: One of the hardest things in the world for parents is watching their children experience failure. Yet failure is an extremely important experience for children to have. Here's why.

Although we may wish it to be different, life is a series of ups and downs. Few of us get through life without at least an occasional set-back or two. The mark of mature individuals is that, rather than being devastated by set-backs, they pick themselves up and try again.

There are some who counsel that the way to help children develop the capacity to overcome obstacles and failure experiences is to build their self-esteem first. In fact, studies do find that children with higher self-esteem are more persistent when faced with challenges and stress than children with lower self-esteem. Hence, advocates within the so-called self- esteem movement claim, build a child's self-esteem first, and they will be more likely to preserver in the face of challenges later.

The only problem: It doesn't really work that way. There is very little evidence that healthy self-esteem is developed by telling a child they are wonderful. Rather, self-esteem comes through experience, and especially through the experience of actually overcoming challenges.

What a failure experience provides for children is the opportunity to learn that they can fail, yet still survive --- perhaps even succeed by trying harder next time. If a child never loses at anything, what develops is not self-confidence but terror at the very thought that they might eventually lose someday. And when that day comes, they are devastated.

So while it is the natural tendency of every loving parent to want to shield their children from failure experiences, the wise parent understands that such experiences are actually wonderful teaching opportunities that, if handle correctly, can actually build self- esteem and self-confidence. Here's how.

Step One: Identify with your child's feelings. It is natural to feel bad after failure. It's not very helpful to bully your child into not having such feelings by saying something like, "Don't cry, you big baby! Everybody loses sometimes!" But neither is it helpful to try to persuade children that they shouldn't feel bad about losing by saying something reassuring like, "Look! You came in fourth place! That's really good! You should feel pretty good about that!" Re-assurance never really re-assures. It can even make things worse by communicating that feeling bad about losing is bad in and of itself.

Rather, the first step in making failure a learning experience is identifying with the legitimate feelings that we all have when we fail. In this particular instance, one might say, "I know it was disappointing to come in fourth place instead of winning a ribbon. I know it's hard to lose." Identifying with your child's feelings gives those feelings legitimacy, and allows them to proceed to step two. Otherwise, you'll spend your whole time arguing about whether or not your child should feel bad.

Step Two: Problem solve with your child an action plan for the future. After you have spent sufficient time identifying with your child's feelings, you can begin to talk with your child about ways he or she might do things differently next time. You want to be careful, however, not to impose a plan too quickly on your child. Rather, encourage your child to come up with the ideas.

For example, you might say, "What do you think you might be able to do so that you can do better next time?" If your child shouts back, "Nothing! I'm never going to swim again!", take this as a sign that you haven't spent sufficient time identifying with your child's feelings.

If instead, your child says weakly, "I don't know," you could suggest an idea or two, like, "Well, maybe we could ask the coach for some additional swimming tips." Take care, however, not to communicate that your child has to win next time. In fact, one of the best lessons from sports is how to deal with failure, not just how to win.

Step Three: Encourage your child to put the action plan into effect. It is not enough just to have a plan, you have to enact the plan. Consequently, after problem solving some ideas for overcoming the challenge, you should encourage your child to actually implement the plan. When your child does, you should praise your child for doing so.

Ideally, following this three step plan will allow your child to be more successful the next time. But what if it doesn't, I hear you asking, what if the next time my child still doesn't "win"?

That too can be a valuable learning experience. Not everyone can succeed at everything they try. I have been trying for twenty-five years to learn to dunk a basketball, but my 5' 10" frame and weak knees just weren't made for that sort of thing. But just because I haven't been successful at dunking basketballs doesn't mean I can't be successful at other things.

That's the perspective you should take if your child tries again and still fails. Agree that it is hard not being successful at everything we try. Yet just because we can't be successful at everything, doesn't mean we can't be successful at something. Problem solve what it is that your child is successful at. Then encourage them to pursue those things.

It is important that children develop healthy self-esteem. But true self-esteem comes not from protecting our children from every bump on the road of life, but by helping them negotiate those bumps and still press on. That's why occasional failure is so important to our kids' development. Without it, they would never learn that failing once in a while is simply a part of life.

And that because they fail once in a while, does not mean they themselves are failures.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn