Teaching Your Child to Fail

It’s a beautiful fall afternoon: the sun is shining in an impossibly blue sky, the wind is whipping through the trees, and out on the field, six five-year-olds are chasing after a soccer ball. There’s my son, with the black “3” emblazoned on the back of his white jersey. You can tell which player he is, even without the number. He’s the one who follows the ball the full length of the (admittedly short) field, the one whose kicks always go in the direction of the right goal, the one who cares so hard about winning that he pushes himself through the whole game. His focus makes him stand-out in an age group where the players are as often seen twirling aimlessly at the wrong end of the field, stealing the ball from their own teammates, or climbing on the goal posts.

But there’s a dark side to this hyper focus. Five minutes after my son scores his second goal, the opposing team scores. Then they score again, and again, and my son dissolves into a pool of desperate tears at the side of the field. The other parents are concerned, wondering if he is hurt. “No,” I say, trying to hide my own frustration. “He just can’t handle losing.”

This is a problem my husband and I wrestled with all season–and continue to wrestle with. When my son’s team won, he glowed all the way home. When they lost (which was often), he cried.  His coach kindly brushed the crying aside, seeing it as evidence of my son’s intense commitment to the game. But I saw it as a symbol of my failure as a parent.

I don’t want my son to be the kind of kid who cries when he loses. Not because other kids will make fun of him when he’s a little older (although that’s part of it), but because I want him to learn how to fail—how to take his losses gracefully and how to have the courage to try again.

But I don’t know how to teach him this.

I myself struggle with failure, and with losing (ask my husband about the time I threw a deck of cards at him. In my defense, I was pregnant, but still). I’ve learned not to cry (at least not publicly), but I want more than this for my son.

Recently, there was a fascinating New York Times article that asked, “What if the secret to success is failure?”  The article tracks the experience of public educators who, while researching the role of character in education and success, uncovered a wealth of evidence that suggests that the most important values for success are: grit (that ability to persist through disappointment), zest (enthusiasm for learning), self-control, social-intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. I couldn’t help smiling a little when I read this list—it reads like a litany of pioneer virtues.

These are the values I want for my son—but these aren’t the academic skills I know how to teach.  Reading and math? We’ve got those covered. But I feel helpless in the face of these virtues, virtues that I know, in the long run, will be of far more value to him than rote academic skills.

At the suggestion of my son’s kindergarten teacher, we’ve started repeating a mantra, “It’s okay to make mistakes.” Sometimes it works. Other times, though, an errant line in a drawing is enough to send my son into despair.  Intellectually, he’s starting to get the concept. But I’m not sure he believes it.

So this is my appeal to you: how do you teach your child that it’s okay to fail? That success is often won not by talent, but by perseverance? How do you teach grit?

About Rosalyn

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest mission. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework.

28 thoughts on “Teaching Your Child to Fail

  1. grit (that ability to persist through disappointment) — that is very important, self-reliance.

    However, it can work, ok, with taking defeat very hard. Browse through http://drannmaria.blogspot.com/ — that is a woman who has accomplished a fair amount, in three different areas (world championship in Judo, renown ethicist, world class statistician and researcher/professor).

    Cries at defeat, still.

  2. Nancy, thanks for the link. I’d heard of this speech, but hadn’t read it. Steve Jobs said something similar in a 2005 speech to Stanford graduates–that getting fired from Apple was one of the best things that happened to him because it was creatively liberating. This is part of what I’d hope to teach my son–not to fear failure (I think failure is inevitable at some point for anyone who’s sincerely trying).

  3. The problem is all my advice I can offer is geared towards teens and adults. 6 year olds are an entirely different matter :\ Somehow it seems that the energy out to be redirected to appreciating skill in others (Wow! Great goal!) or a hard-played game (So close!), but I haven’t the faintest idea how to do that :(

  4. I second what Janell said.

    As Cubmaster I recently oversaw the Raingutter Regatta. Ugh, I feared unsportsmanlike conduct from children and parents. Who wants tears at cub scouts?! Before the races we talked about it, that no one loves them any less if they loose. That Heavenly Father doesn’t care who wins or looses, but that we are good sports and treat each other right.

    When my own son was the one to come crying to me when he lost a race, I reminded him that he should congratulate the winners and look forward to the next race.

    Another reason I think things went well is because so many of the boys are in organized sports. Their previous experience with winning and loosing helped. Sometimes it’s a matter of going through it over and over.

  5. From experience, I read stories to my son at night. (I think most children love it when you read to them.) I often would pick “value based” short children stories that I would remind him of when I knew it would help him relate to his problem or situation. Kinda like the scriptures do :)

  6. sorry, 1 more thing…. if he reads of a character he loves and how that character deals with failure and the good attitude he possesses, it just might make him want to emulate that :)

  7. Wonderful article Rosalyn. I think several parents struggle with this challenge, teaching their child to lose gracefully. Our six year old daughter has been blessed with two parents who are perfectionists and a momma who likes to control her environment. She was bound to get these traits from us. I want her to be detail oriented and strive to do her best, but to be alright when she fails. We constantly tell her to take little steps. Her job right now is learning how to use those skills and develop those traits. It is okay to make a mistake, fail or not be perfect as long as you keep trying. I also try to remind her to breathe, take a break or calm down some other way before we try again.

    I think in the end experiences, example and love will help her develop her need to be perfect into a need to do her best and let Heavenly Father take care of the rest.

  8. I currently have the opposite problem with one of my children, but in a weird way this was still helpful to me. I have an older child who hates and is doing poorly in school. We helped that child get through by the skin of his/her teeth several times and then decided that perhaps that child would learn better if we stopped protecting him/her from the consequences of his/her choices and allowed him/her to fail. It was a painful experience and we hoped the hard lesson was learned. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and that child continues to struggle. However, as I read your post I recognized many of the qualities you listed. I know that particular child does have many of the qualities necessary to succeed. This gives me hope that at some point things will click for this child and he/she will have what it will take to succeed.

  9. I applaud your efforts to help him handle failure.
    However, I see another thing you need to deal with. It is making your uncomfortable to see him cry.
    It is ok to cry. However, it is not ok to act our in certain ways when we are upset. I would attempt to control the actions, not the feelings. It is ok to feel sad about losing, but it is not ok to cry loudly and bother people around you. If you want to feel upset that is fine, but don’t be rude to those around you. You still have to finish the game. You still have to say thank you for your treat. You still have to come home in the car. You still have to obey.
    Make a list of things that are ok to do when he feels mad/sad/upset/frustrated and things that are not ok. Crying for a 6 year old boy should not be on the no list. Crying loudly, however, is not ok.
    Your kids have the right to feel what they feel. It is overhelicoptering if you are trying to hard to help him never feel upset. Just deal with his behavior (also his anxieties or concerns) and focus it towards healthier ways to deal with anger or sadness.
    I have 4 children. If my daughter comes home and is upset about something, it isn’t right for me to tell her all the reasons why she shouldn’t be upset. My job is to help her learn to deal with it and figure out how to handle it. Not tell her it doesn’t matter if she has friends or it doesn’t matter what grade she got or it doesn’t matter if something embarrassing happened, etc.

  10. One of the most joyful visuals I can bring to mind is several years ago when my son was on the high school basketball team. He wasn’t cut, but his coach would send him in cold with anywhere from 45 seconds – 1 minute left in a quarter. Talk about humiliating. He was the last one on the bench. And what is he remembered for, not only in our community, but in every opposing school he played. His towel. Every basket made by someone else on his team was acknowledged by my son jumping up off the bench and cheering and waving his towel in the air – over and over again; throwing his arms around his team mates and hugging them for the points they made. We have always taught our children that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% of how YOU CHOOSE to respond to it.

    Fast forward to today – he is a school superintendent and stake Young Men’s President – did those years of “losing”, if you choose to see his not being chosen to play in that light, have a greater value? What insight and compassion does he have now, both in his profession and his church calling?

  11. Great post, questions and comments.

    It is such a hard balance, this push for sucess, but not too hard.

    I feel like I’ve erred on the side of failure being fine a little too much…but only a little? Maybe?

    My oldest just started college. He didn’t get into BYU because I didn’t teach him to push himself. But he knows whatever he chooses to do I’ll support him.

    My philosophy is to be a bit laid back about how things are done. I blame it on being from California, but I also have trouble pushing myself to succeed.

    Good luck…or better, seek the Spirit to know how your individual son needs to be guided on this narrow path.

  12. In my mind, one of the only things is repetition of that truth that it’s ok to fail. In our house, the mantras are “progression, not perfection” and “we learn from experience.”

    I also like what jks said — that it’s important to acknowledge their emotions. I think the trick is learning the tools to not have failure be a show-stopper.

    And how to balance that with learning to work hard? That’s something we struggle with a lot.

  13. I just made a conection with an article I read about working out to the point of failure. Muscles grow the most when worked till they fail. I think that’s what you’re saying here, Rosalyn. If our kids can fail with grace, then they will learn to succeed.

    I feel like there are many truths to learn from our physical bodies. This is my newest insight, working to the point of failure brings about strength.

    Here’s the article. There is just one paragraph on the third page that alludes to taking this muscle concept into other areas of our lives.

    http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/fitness_articles.asp?id=290&page=3

  14. Rosalyn, you just described my son to the letter 2 years ago. I thought of many ways I could help him. His kindergarten teacher told us to make a purposeful effort to not beat ourselves up when we make mistakes and make it a point to let him see us make mistakes and just keep on going. I must admit I’m not one who likes to have my faults pointed out in this way but I knew I had to do something or my son could end up worse than me (not something that I want).

    So I tried very hard to let him see it was ok to make a mistake. One day I was cooking dinner and his 4 month old sister was being very fussy. In my efforts to multi-task I forgot an important ingredient in the dish I was making. When the end product wasn’t even worth eating, I loudly said, “oh well, I think we will just have French Toast for dinner instead.” It was like a light bulb turned on in his head and he said, “mom, you make mistakes too.” I answered with a resounding “YES!” He still struggled a bit with the concept after that but we reminded him that it wasn’t worth crying or being upset about. Now that he is 8 years old I have to remind him of it less often. When he gets upset I ask him, is it worth being upset? He usually calms down and says, No.

    Some kids just come having to master some skills more than others. I think that if we take the time to help them, we understand them and OURSELVES better. I know that I have my children so that I can do better and BE better.

  15. Instead of teaching my boys ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ or ‘failure’ as concepts we deal with, I’m trying to focus on the hard work. They are my ‘hard workers’ and even when they struggle to accomplish something, I make sure to admire their hard work and whatever they were able to accomplish through it. I figure it’s a good concept.

    I admire your son’s passion. Perhaps it just needs redirection?

  16. Thank you all for your helpful comments and links! I’ve gotten a lot of good ideas–and encouragement–from this thread. For us, I think part of the solution is to emphasize the idea that “failure” isn’t just not doing as well as you’d like to: failure means not trying. As long as you’ve done your best and worked hard, you haven’t failed, even if you don’t win.

  17. This describes my 6 year old to a tee! He is a perfectionist and HATES to make mistakes in anything. I often talk about my mistakes and what I learned from them and why it’s okay to “fail” or make mistakes. We also have started talking about people that have “failed” and persisted and been very successful. We have rold played how he could handle a situation differently (long after the situation happened) That drive and competition will serve him well in the long run, but you are right he needs to learn how to fail gracefully.

  18. I think everyone likes to win and does feel good to win. However, not everyone can win despite doing their best. This is something I teach my boys and we talk about it every single day.

    We need to teach our children to their own best and if they have done that, despite winning or losing, they can be happy. If they continue to let the lose or whatever, bother them, we need to gently point that out to them. We need to teach them appropriate behaviors for winning/losing and it takes a lot of work. But it needs to be done.

    I know someone, actually a family, who allowed their children to have whatever they wanted and to act however they wanted after losing a game or not getting what they wanted. This family is now grown up with children of their own and still behave the way they did as children. They cannot keep employment, one is about to lose his marriage, and are a bunch of unhappy people and feel the world owes them a bunch of money on a silver platter. Only two children married because they went away to school, but still their marriages are not stable due to the behaviors.

    It is important we do all we can, but there might be that one child who just doesn’t get it. It is okay. We keep working with them and loving them all the same.

  19. I commented earlier, but I just thought I’d mention that my daughter at age 5-6 would cry every time she’d lose a Sorry game or whatever. She would want to play but then get upset if she lost. I did not give in to the drama. I would just matter of factly explain that sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. That we can be happy for the winner (me) or her grandmother or whoever. That if she wants people to play with her she needs to realize that she might lose, etc. She eventually outgrew it as she matured.
    Keep your explanations matter of fact rather than pleading, and let the lesson sink in over weeks, rather than expecting your child to suddenly say, “Oh, mother, I totally understand now and feel just fine. Thank you for teaching me about losing.”
    I assume anxiety isn’t a bigger problem and isn’t occurring in other situations.

  20. This is what seems to work for us:

    1. We taught our son two important songs when he was very young, and sing them regularly at home: “You can’t always get what you want” by the Rolling Stones, and “Everyone makes mistakes” from Sesame Street.
    2. We play a lot of board games and let him lose often. We talk about losing and winning when we play. This gives him practice losing in a safe environment.
    3. My husband and I frequently share our own stories of failure with our son, so he knows it’s normal. We talk about bad grades, lost games, social failures etc when we were kids. We share small mistakes we make as adults as well…nothing that would cause him to worry about adult concerns (like job or marriage problems), but little things like making a bad meal, saying something foolish, being crabby or impatient, etc.
    4. We focus on praising process and effort above outcome. When he wins we don’t say “I’m so proud of you for winning.” We say “I love how you worked hard and did your best,” and “I love how you were kind to the other team.” When he loses we say things like “I love how you never gave up, even when your team lost the ball,” or “I love how you helped the other boys feel included,” or ” I love how you practiced so hard this week. I can tell you are getting stronger and faster from practicing.”. We complement work on learning above grades.
    5. We talk often about caring most that son really TRIES, whether or not he does something well.

    So far it seems to be working.

    Good luck. :o)

  21. So often in life we think we are doing “everything right” and bad things still happen. We go through our check lists that say “If I do …. then this will happen. Sometimes in life even our best efforts don’t get us what we want. Your son could have the best game of his life and still lose to a better team. Perhaps you could focus on the question “Why do you like soccer”? If his only answer is to win, then there are other issues. If he can recognize that he loves it for other reasons such as “I love to run” then even on a losing day he will have won.

  22. My youngest son is playing soccer for his first season. After his first day at practice, he told me he’d won soccer. I asked him what that meant and he said “I ran fast, I kicked hard, I won soccer,” all with a look that said “duh, mom.” I love that definition of winning at sports.

    Learning to both win and lose gracefully is an important skill to learn and teach. Learning to accept those ugly emotions as real, but how to keep them in check is also important.
    My kids are running up against the limits of their inherent abilities this year scholastically. They have to work and can’t wing it, otherwise their grades suffer. I’m learning to let their grades suffer. Natural consequences are important in this whole discussion–learning that work improves your chances of successful outcome, but is not a fail safe predictor. I was talking to a woman last night who can’t let her kids turn in anything less than perfect at school. Kind of drove me nuts because she was very open about it being far more about her than what her children were learning. I think learning to let our children fail when that’s what their input merits is a very important part in teaching them to work, to fail, to win, to live.

  23. Most of the really competitive, sports-minded kids I knew back in the day (my own children are adults now) cried when they lost games at the age of six. After all, your son is pretty young and inexperienced, and the most dedicated athletes always care a LOT about losing. They just learn to handle it better with age.

    I know this is not the topic, but I did want to add one last thought. I think our kids develop coping skills best when we step back and allow them room to do just that. Swooping down to help, comfort, or manage a child’s feelings every time something goes wrong increases his or her dependence on us rather than himself and robs him of the opportunity to develop that kind of self esteem that lasts…the kind that will be there for him as an adult, when he needs it most. JMHO, of course.

    Of course, I second the words of JKS in #11 as far as making sure children don’t throw those feelings at someone else with inappropriate behavior.

    =)

  24. ” They just learn to handle it better with age.”

    I actually didn’t learn this — I think it’s a skill that often has to be taught. I remember still falling apart as a teen when I’d lose games. Basketball was my life and I didn’t know how to manage my emotions. So I’m being deliberate about teaching my kids that it’s ok to feel sad when expectations aren’t met (and I think it’s ok for them to come for comfort) but then to also learn to not let emotions rule their lives, to help them learn how to get back on the saddle, as it were, and try again.

  25. In line with the article you spoke of, I have read that some children see a problem that they don’t know the answer to yet as a challenge and an opportunity to learn while others see themselves as a failure if they don’t know the answer.

    I think your attitude is setting the right tone already. He’s only in Kindergarten and it’s okay to cry when things are more than he can bear at that age or any age for the rest of us.

  26. I remember a professor who used to say that you needed to have expectations low and motivation high. That way, you work hard but it won’t hurt so much if you lose. But 5 might be a bit young for that philosophy.

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