Opinion & Essays - June, 2001 Issue #82
Failure—Boon or Burden for Children?
by Elisa Medhus, MD
Author of Raising Children Who Think for Themselves
[Dr. Medus, mother of five children aged 16, 14, 10, 7 and
5, built and operated a successful private medical practice in Houston, Texas for 13 years. In 1992 she conceptualized and developed
a successful software program for parents called “ReadySetGrow!” that was featured on “Good Morning America.” Her book, Raising Children
Who Think for Themselves, draws on hundreds of interviews with parents, kids, and teachers, and “explodes the myth that parents are
powerless to shape their children.”]
Children come into this world unperturbed by their own failures—until
they realize that those blunders will be scrutinized, evaluated, and criticized by others. Why the about-face? Simple. We’re pack
animals. And being pack animals, we thirst for a sense of belonging - a thirst that can be quenched in two ways. Either we earn pack
acceptance by offering unique contributions or roles that benefit the pack (self-direction), or we beg for that acceptance, making
all choices contingent upon whatever will win the pack’s approval (external direction.)
Sadly, most of humanity has chosen this second path, and for that
reason, failure has become a ball and chain around our children’s legs. Over time, our children learn to fear the ridicule or reprimand
that comes along with failure. From this, they begin to resort to outside evaluation as a means of self-assessment instead of using
their mistakes as information that will help them shape future choices, because after all, how can they trust in an inner choice-making
process that has subjected them to humiliation?
Failure phobia is responsible for today’s commonplace reluctance
to make choices. The result—an epidemic of underachievers (those who choose not to choose, because they are afraid their choices will
result in failure) and perfectionists (those who choose according to the highest possible social standards, because they are afraid
that making a lesser choice will make them less acceptable.) People from either group become afraid to think in fear that the product
of their thoughts may produce failures that weaken their sense of worth. Instead, they rely on others to do the thinking for them.
As parents, we can raise our children to both welcome and learn from the mistakes they will surely make during their lives instead
of being shattered by them. We can teach them to use their mistakes to help them grow instead of allowing those mistakes to generate
external reactions that will make them wither. Only then can they strive for personal excellence, which, when it boils right down
to it, is what we really want for them.
Here are some suggestions that might help our children develop good
defeat recovery skills through self-direction:
- Discuss your own mistakes with your children and the lessons you
learned from each.
- Never deny children something they’re good at as a conse- quence
- Teach children that there is no quota for failed attempts. There’s
progress and success to be found in each of them.
- Teach children to strive for personal excellence rather than perfection.
If they learn to assess themselves objectively rather than through the evaluations and opinions of others, they’ll be able to compete
with their own past performance rather than the performance of others. And they’ll be able to do so according to their own agenda
and at their own pace.
- Use mistake contests. Ask your children to record every mistake
they’ve made during the day. During dinner, each can describe the mistake from which they’ve learned the most. The entire family can
then decide which one was the best and why. Because this unmasks the advantages that each failure offers, children become more accepting
of their shortcomings and mistakes.
- Downplay past failures
- Teach children to develop “failure tolerance” by not over-reacting
to their mistakes.
- Encourage mistakes in children. Doing this helps them perceive
their failures more as positive opportunities to grow than as something that gnaws away at their self-worth. They’ll learn to stare
adversity in the face and think, “What can this teach me? How can this help me grow?”
- Teach children to separate their failures from their self-worth.
We can help them see that there’s a difference between failing at a task and failing as a person. Letting them know how much they
should value the fact that they’ve tried is a good start.
- Accept suffering as a good thing. When children struggle, they
develop strength, compassion and soulfulness. They also learn that there’s light at the end of those dark tunnels—that suffering is
something they can overcome.
Once our children use their mistakes and failures as a tool to help
them learn and grow instead of weapons designed to sabotage their self-worth, imagine the repercussions! They’d be more willing to
take risks. They’d then be able to rack up a solid list of skills and abilities, making them highly competent. This competence leads
to a strong sense of independence, which then bolsters their self-confidence and self-esteem. And what about the benefits for the
rest of the world? Throughout history, risk takers like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Madam Curie, the Wright brothers, and Jonas Salk
have blessed us with much that is wonderful in our world.