Why Our Children Need Successful Failures: And Plenty of Them

Posted | by Madeline Levine | Posted in Courageous Parenting

Remember your toddler’s first steps. Remember how your child let go of your leg or the sofa edge or the playpen railing, and on legs so wobbly that locomotion seemed impossible, he or she moved to take a step towards you. And you crouched down so your eyes were level with your teetering toddler and held your arms out so that there was a safe harbor to fall into. You held your breath, your own limbs quivered and your face urged your child to go, to try, to take those first steps.

One. Two. Oops.
Down on his well-padded butt with a look of stricken surprise on his face. But you smiled broadly, clapped in delight and erased the fear from his eyes with your own laughing eyes. You urged him to get up again, to try again. And he did. Again and again. Up, standing, teetering, swaggering, walking, running. A million fall downs and a million get up and do it agains. These forays were some of your young child’s earliest failures. But they were also necessary, strengthening his motor coordination, his resolve and his confidence. Few of us think of this as failure, but if success is about mastery, then falling on your butt is about failure – necessary failure, imperative failure, successful failure. Because without these failures your child would never have learned how to walk, how to run, how to ride a bike, play lacrosse or soccer. It is the rule, rather than the exception, that failure precedes success.

Yet, as our kids grow, we become not simply less enthusiastic about their failures, but far less tolerant. A poor grade, a missed goal, a school rejection all become harbingers not of future success, but of inevitable failure. “I can’t believe you got a C on your math final. That means you won’t be placed in advanced algebra and you might as well forget about those fancy schools you want to go to.” “You’ve practiced that kick a hundred times, how could you miss it when it really counted? You’ll never make the traveling team now.” “What happened in your interview? Did you blow it? Should I just sign you up for community college now?” While all of these parenting responses sound harsh, they are unfortunately not unusual. Not because we are awful parents intent on stripping our children of whatever modicum of confidence they possess, but because we actually are frightened that our children will be cutting off their “options” when they stumble.

This perception that mistakes and failures become increasingly fatal as our children grow is reinforced when schools do not allow their students to redeem themselves when they have an inadequate grasp of content. It’s kind of crazy to think that your child takes a test, may do poorly for a million different reasons, and then is expected to go on to the next level of content without ever having had the opportunity to master the original content. As a writer, I can assure you that the first draft of a book, without the opportunity to rework each and every sentence, would be a poor substitute for a polished manuscript. This is how all of us learn. We put ourselves out there, try something just beyond our easy reach, learn from our mistakes and then can move on to even greater challenges. In education, this is called the “just right challenge.” In the just right challenge, your odds of success can be 50/50- Successful enough of the time to feel confident, unsuccessful enough of the time to be challenged. Otherwise we’d all still be reading “Dick and Jane” books (boy does that date me!)

The same is as true of psychological development as of educational development. If your daughter gets blown off in the cafeteria by her best friend Kayla and you run right over to “talk it over with the girls” or even worse tell your daughter “to forget about Kayla, she’s a terrible friend,” then you’re not allowing your daughter to learn the emotional components that can buffer failure. What happened between her and Kayla? Is there some way to remedy the situation? How does she handle disappointment? What may feel briefly like a social failure has the potential to help your daughter learn the repertoire of coping skills – collaboration, maintaining self-control, being curious, compromise – that she will need to navigate the inevitable disappointments and failures she will encounter in life.

This isn’t to say that a kid who fails more than he or she succeeds doesn’t need attention. If this is chronic, he probably does. But if we go back to the model of mom and her newly mobile toddler, we see the most effective way to encourage learning and confidence. Allow mistakes, encourage them, tolerate failure and make sure your child knows that it is the continued attempt, the effort, and the perseverance that you value most. Remember Thomas Edison’s advice, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Enthusiastically share your own successful failures with your kids. Let zest, not discouragement, drive your child’s learning.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.