Regardless of how many parenting articles we read, how much emotional support we give, or how many teachers we bribe, our kids will have failures. Failures are a normal and important part of life, even for the most successful people. For example, Albert Einstein's ideas were wrong more than they were right, and Tiger Woods has lost many more golf tournaments than he has won. But luminaries like these thrive from failure. They use failures to inspire, to motivate, and to learn. The same can be true for our children. We cannot teach our kids how to avoid failures, but, by working on the following concepts, we can teach them how to fail productively and turn any setback into the fuel for achievement.
- Failure is feedback on preparation. Teach your child that a failure is not a reflection of ability; it is only a reflection of preparation methods. For example, if your son studies for a math test for two hours a day, five days a week, yet gets a bad grade, then you and your son need to reevaluate his math studying regimen. Make it clear that the grade is not a sign of his intelligence or math skills. Instead the grade is simply an opportunity to solve a problem: what does he need to do to succeed on math tests? Perhaps he doesn't spend enough time on his daily homework to fully understand the concepts, perhaps he didn't study the right things for the exam, or perhaps it's simply hard material and he needed to study three hours a day rather than two. Make it clear that there is some solution that will work, and use the bad grade to motivate your kid to change bad habits, find new study methods, or work harder.
- Any task can be solved with hard work. Research shows that if kids think success on a task is based purely on skill, they will give up easily, but if they think success is due to effort, they will persevere. This means, for example, if you explain to your daughter that grades are a reflection of intelligence, she will be discouraged after getting a bad grade on a test and think she is not smart enough for an A. But if you explain that grades are mostly a reflection of effort, then she will see a bad grade as a sign that she didn't work hard enough, and she will be inspired to try harder. Emphasize the importance of effort in succeeding on a task, and your kids will see failure as a challenge that they can meet.
- Complement mastery. Research also shows that children who are praised for their effort will embrace challenges, while children who are praised only for their innate talents will avoid challenges and give up more easily. Is it your fault that your DNA created a little genius? Of course not. But still you should try to complement mastery rather than ability. For example, if your kid made the travel soccer team you should say, "Great job. You really practiced hard during the off season and that really paid off," rather than "I am proud that you are such a gifted soccer player."
- Build self-confidence. Studies show that kids with high self-confidence believe that they can overcome a failure, so they are more likely to persevere. Help your kids develop self-confidence. Congratulate them on their successes and tell them specifically why you are proud. Specific complements are much more meaningful than general statements like, "Great work." With failures, try to focus on the positives and offer perspective. Emphasize that a failure is a small bump on their path to success. Finally, always encourage your kids and let them know that you truly believe they can succeed.
- Don't fix it for them. Even though you want to help your children with failures, don't allow yourself to take over projects for them. If you start doing your kids' algebra problem sets and spend your weekends making dinosaur dioramas, you might help their grades, but you won't help them in the long term. Kids need to have the experience of failing and then later succeeding on their own to gain self-confidence in their ability to bounce back. So find ways to help your kids fix failures for themselves. Discuss possible solutions, give them encouragement, and be available to give advice, but let them see that with their own hard work they can be successful.
- Explain that we have to make choices. A constant focus on success and failure can make kids' expectations unrealistic and make activities less fun. Your son may be valedictorian, captain of the football and wrestling team, an all-state Flamenco dancer, and get the leading role in every drama, but then he is upset when he doesn't get first chair violin in the school orchestra. Explain that you can't win at everything all the time, and that it is a worthwhile experience-and not a failure-to choose to do something just for fun without trying to be the best. Help your son think through his schedule and priorities to make realistic goals, so that he can succeed at what is most important to him.