How to help them fail well: Facebook Live

21 January 2020

For one of our Facebook Lives for parents and carers, Rachel talked about how to help our children fail well.

You can watch the videos below – there’s one for parents and carers of under 5s, one for primary age and one for teens – or read a short summary below. Much of what Rachel said is covered in chapter 33 of the Parenting Children for a Life of Faith Omnibus; you may also find chapters 30 and 32 (which deal with comparison) helpful.

Here are the highlights of what she said:

Whatever the age of our children, we can help them learn that failure is:

  1. Natural. Think about children learning to walk or learning an instrument: failure is a natural way of learning anything. Failure is always going to be part of our lives – it’s how we figure out how to do stuff.
  2. Strategic. It is something God uses to refine us. For example, when the Israelites were crossing the sea, God set them up to have moments of success or failure and whatever happened, he coached them through the next step and helped them learn. You tend to learn more when you fail than when you succeed. It’s important for discipleship.
  3. Necessary… and therefore inevitable.

Ways to apply this for under fives:

Three things we can do to help our under 5s form a healthy view of failure:

  • Value effort, learning and progress over perfection. We are often quick to praise success and so that’s what they think we want. The biggest cheer can be when they get up from a mistake rather than when they’ve done it perfectly. As you do an activity with your child or talk about what they are doing, listen to yourself and see what you are praising.
  • Give space to fail because it’s natural, strategic and necessary: make it safe but give them those opportunities. This helps them to grow in confidence and competence. Celebrate their creative problem solving. Teach them that it doesn’t work out every time.
  • Consider how we view failure and respond to it in our own lives. How we respond when we mess up teaches them about how they can respond too. Every time we fail in front of our kid is an opportunity to show them how to handle failure: this isn’t just the big stuff, but the little things like dropping something.  This isn’t about saying ‘it’s OK’ but letting them see how you handle what’s happened and teaching them how to take the next step.

Questions Rachel answered and comments for under 5s:

  • How teaching under 5s to name their emotions can be really helpful when they are dealing with failure.
  • How do we help them to see the difference between sin and failure? For them to acknowledge when they sin and not always just pass it off as error? Or be too ashamed to confess failure or need?
  • How do we talk about doing your best without veering into perfectionism?
  • My youngest keeps comparing his creations to his big brother’s and thinking that what he’s done is ‘rubbish’. He’s reluctant to make marks now, so we’ve not got many opportunities to praise what he’s doing.

Ways to apply this for primary ages

Five things we can do to help our 5s to 11s form a healthy view of failure:

  • Build a language structure around failure, eg mistakes are just learning, we all do that sometimes – it’s what you do next that matters. You don’t need to use the word failure: you can use words or phrases that are feel less final, such as mistakes or choices that don’t work out.
  • Value effort, learning and progress over perfection. Focussing on these gives you so much to praise, to help your child be proud of what they have done regardless of the outcome. For example, take sibling fights. We want perfection (you never fight), but they will. What about if we recognise and praise the effort, learning and progress that took place? (Well done, your sister punched you in the face but you walked away!) Or for a child who struggles with spellings, their 7/10 isn’t a failure but something that took effort and they are making progress.
  • Help them learn that failures are OK and we can cope with them. If your kid forgets that mistakes are okay, you might want to do some experiments to get them used to the idea, for example, altering a recipe to see what happens. Label things as an experiment and see what happened.
  • Equip them to clean up their failures. They sometimes get upset because they don’t know how to fix it or what’s next.
  • Use our mistakes to teach our kids about how to cope with theirs. Create windows into your failures: how you felt, what happened, what happened next, what you learned. Tell stories of your failures in the past so they know you are an imperfect person who fails too. Make coping with failure a normal part of everyday life.

Questions Rachel answered for primary age:

  • Resilience is a buzzword at school. Is there any difference/wisdom between secular resilience and Christian perseverance?
  • My daughter gets really frustrated. Tonight for example she was drawing a picture and it ‘went wrong’. She got really angry and destroyed her creation and then was distraught. I don’t remember being this ‘fiery’ as a child and I want to do better at helping her cope with her mistakes. She is only five and my first child so is it just an age thing?
  • Do you have any advice for walking this with older children with perfectionist tendencies?
  • My six year old doesn’t like to get things wrong so he doesn’t try. He worries about answering questions in case he gives the wrong answer. He’s not keen on writing in case he spells something incorrectly or forms the letters the wrong way. We try to encourage him the best we can but I would love to hear how you would approach this.

Ways to apply this for preteens and teens

For our teens, failure and confidence are often closely linked, meaning that when they fail, their confidence can crumble and they can learn to fear failure. But if we can teach them how to handle the little failures then learning to handle the big failures is just the next step up.  Teaching them how to do it well is an amazing gift we can give them.

It is so valuable to our preteens and teens if we can help them see that failure is natural and necessary: it’s how we learn, and we never stop learning. Our job is to figure out how to cope with that so it’s a joyful learning process, not something that is going to crush us. None of us is perfect. We need to communicate to them that we don’t expect them to be perfect and we are here to walk them on the journey of their growth, not a journey of always being perfect.

Four tools to help us do that for our teenagers:

  1. Be the outside eye of admiration for your children. Praise learning, progress and effort, not perfection. We will always celebrate their successes but there are so many other opportunities to celebrate their learning, progress and effort.
  2. Give them insight into our failures, now and in the past. It could be how you messed up at work, or didn’t manage a conflict well, or let someone down. Create windows into what it felt like, how you dealt with it, what you did or will do next, what you learned. You can use other people’s stories – invite people over or explore a series like Jia Jiang’s ‘100 days of rejection’.
  3. Be aware of their self-talk and shame. They may get frustrated or judge themselves or label themselves wrongly. They may be ashamed (not necessarily wrongly) or they may be embarrassed because they aren’t perfect. Help them to name that and equip them to spot when there’s a lie and replace it with truth. You’re not saying you can’t think that, but reminding them of the truth. (See Curious Questions for more ideas around this.)
  4. Equip them with next steps so they know how they can deal with failure: for example, what happens when I fail a test. Let them know how you’ll respond, talk it through, tell stories, do some role play if there’s something they need to do.

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Image by Ibrahim Bernal from Pixabay