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But what if I fail?

What do Oprah, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Margaret Atwood, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, and Stephen King have in common? If you guessed that they have all experienced career success, you would be right. If you guessed they had all experienced failure on the way to their success, you would be right again. Each of these people have failed at some point in the pursuit of their goals. Had they given up, we wouldn’t recognize their names today.

Why do we work so hard to avoid the one thing that gives us the information we need to be better and stronger? It’s uncomfortable to fail. Yet, ‘uncomfortable’ is the place where learning takes place and the road to success is paved. If we are on a learning and life journey, then why wouldn’t we expect to experience some challenges and failures along the way? It takes courage to push through the struggle and persist, even when things are not what we had hoped.

If we always experience success, the bar is too low. If we never have to struggle, we never feel the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes with having moved through something difficult. The butterfly story says it well. One shortened version is, a man is walking along and sees a butterfly trying to break through its cocoon. He watches for a while and sees the struggle. The man wants to be helpful so he decides to peel back the cocoon. Had he known what would happen next, he would have left the butterfly to do what it needed to do. A butterfly needs to struggle to strengthen its wings to fly. The man’s help, while well-intentioned, created a weakness in the butterfly leaving it unable to do what it was born to do. What I like best about this story is that it reminds me of the necessity of struggle. It also reminds me that I sometimes need to step back and let my children work through their own challenges, even when it makes me uncomfortable watching them struggle.

We want to support our children. We want to moderate pain. When they fall, we kiss it better. When they don’t make a team, we justify it. When they don’t get the marks they expected at school or have trouble with friends, we’re tempted to blame someone or something. We’re not helping our children. It can be really hard to watch our children struggle. We don’t want them to fail. We don’t want them to miss out. We don’t want them to be unhappy.

Our responses to our children’s struggles are important. We can see our children as ‘failing’ or we can see them as ‘learning’. Our reactions and responses are models for our children. Do we experience the loss or failure as a negative, or do we embrace it as an opportunity to do even better next time? We need to help our children learn to reflect on what went well and where things could be different. We need to normalize the idea of ‘failure’. Creating an ideal of ‘always success’ is not real, and leads to issues with self-confidence and self-esteem. It takes courage to risk doing something that might not turn out as imagined. If we don’t allow our children to struggle, to learn, to take responsibility for their choices and actions, then when will they learn they can change something in their life if it’s not working?

If we want our children to be strong, capable, confident, and feel the thrill of accomplishment that comes from effort and challenge, then we have to  be okay with them struggling and yes, sometimes, failing too.

Nicole is a registered psychologist with the Sheldon Psychology Group. She has been working with children and families for over 25 years in various capacities. Nicole holds a permanent teaching certificate and has an understanding of classroom functioning. Nicole is passionate about supporting children and families in achieving success and dignity in their lives through assessment, intervention, and collaborative approaches. 


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