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When Your Child Fails: The Value in Making Mistakes

Your son tried out for the junior high basketball team and didn’t make it. Your daughter wanted a part in her school play, but wasn’t chosen. Your youngest child failed an important math test. What is your response when your child goes through disappointments and outright failures? Perhaps a better question might be: “What can you teach your children through the inevitable disappointments and failures of life?”

Talk about it

When the time is right, it pays to face disappointments and failures head-on. A ‘here is what you wanted, but this is the reality’ kind of talk. Sometimes there will be tangled feelings when a disappointment comes such as blaming others for the situation or expressing self-deprecations such as, ‘I can’t do anything right.’ It’s helpful for your child to vent frustration when the feelings are raw and painful, but then guide the discussion to a more positive place.

It hurts

Allow some time to explore the sadness and pain of a big disappointment or a performance blunder. Sometimes there is a period of ‘mourning the loss’ when your child had his heart set on a certain task or role and failed to achieve it. If the failure was due to lack of preparation, there will also follow a period of analysis of the situation. What went wrong? Or maybe hard facts must be faced. She may never be class president or lead singer in the chorus. Maybe others are more gifted, more talented. What then? Can you be the voice of reason guiding your child to a healthy realization of his or her unique gifts? No one is good at everything. Where can she find success? What are realistic goals he can achieve?

The role of mistakes

Beyond the disappointment of one traumatic life experience looms a much larger truth. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning. Think of your baby learning to walk. How many bumps and falls did it take before she toddled toward you without stumbling?  No one thinks of that process as a series of failures. Rather, we realize the child has to practice before attaining success. And that principle can be applied  to nearly everything we learn in life.

In her book, Allow Your Children to Fail if You Want Them to Succeed, Dr. Avril Beckford says, “Failure is inevitable, so what becomes important is how parents help their children to deal with it.”

Every classroom teacher has students who are afraid to make a mistake. They want to be perfect the first time. But learning doesn’t happen that way. Even top students must learn to try something, check for success, learn from errors and move on to try again. Children need to learn to tolerate a level of risk that allows them to try, fail and try again. This is a learning cycle that applies to nearly every subject area and to every character-building life experience. Most errors are approximations - he tries something and it’s nearly correct, but not quite. But sometimes a science experiment fails completely. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and make a new hypothesis. But what has he learned from the failed experiment? That’s the key to accepting failures. Determine what has been learned from the experience. Set a new goal. Move on.

Here are some tips when walking with your child through failure:

• Listen. Allow time to process what has happened and why.

• Be ready to help analyze what went wrong.  Talk it through.

• Share anecdotes from your own life. We’ve all been there.

• Make a new plan. Try a new activity, set a new goal, work harder next time.

• Reinforce your absolute approval of your child as a much-loved person apart from any performance of any kind.

Lessons from others who experienced failure

There are many stories of great men and women of history who failed over and over again before achieving success. Thomas Edison is famous for saying he didn’t fail when inventing the light bulb, he just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work! Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm.”

If none of those stories impress your child, try this one by basketball icon Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games. I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot 26 times and missed. I’ve failed over and over again and that is why I succeed.” The key to success for these great men and for your child too, is never give up.

Parents are instrumental in helping their children learn the skills necessary to deal with the disappointments and failures we all experience in life. Choose the positive outlook that mistakes, errors and failures are just one part of learning any new skill. They’re just a link in the chain of achieving success. Your support and positive attitude toward this learning cycle will set the tone for your child’s future successes.

Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and freelance writer.  She specializes in parenting and family life topics. Find her at or on Facebook.

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