As a first-time grandmother, I watch my year-old grandson with fascination and amazement. Like all babies, fierce determination drives him to learn. He takes trial and error in stride and innately understands that failure is the cost of mastery. I watch him and imagine how amazing we all would be if we retained that unflappable determination.
Experience tells me that eventually, his confidence will diminish. Self-consciousness will compete with his willingness to risk trying new things. Saving face will become more important than working through the embarrassment of being a novice long enough to develop proficiency.
Fear of failure presses kids–and adults– to avoid trying in the first place or to quit early in the process. This causes the loss of faith in ourselves and we succumb to discouragement.
As I write this blog post, the 2016 Olympics plays in the background. I consider these competitors. They did not fall prey to fear. They did not give up on their dreams. They embraced hard work and commitment, tolerated frustration, achieved success via the information distilled through failure and held onto their dreams of athletic excellence.
As parents, we can help our kids cultivate determination, persistence and acceptance of failure as an integral part of any learning process.
Another figure well-known for his determination comes to mind. Inventor, Thomas Edison who famously quipped, “I know several thousand things that won’t work.” His life serves as a wonderful model for persistence through failure. What made him so resistant to discouragement and surrender?
As Intentional Parents, how can we help our children be strong, confident and determined? How do we teach them not to fear failure? No surprises here. No magic. Our most effective tool is the way we live our lives so that we model what we wish our kids to learn. All parents know that toddlers study us to learn about their world (flush things down the toilet, unlock baby gates, open cabinets, etc). This learning-through-observation never stops. Whatever their ages, kids watch us and learn. We must always remain conscious of this fact and be very intentional about what we are modeling.
How does this look in action? Consider these steps:
First, set an expectation that success will NOT be easy. Emphasize how often we practice, rehearse, refine and repeat our efforts to learn and perfect our skills. Make clear that we expect to see the similar fits and starts in their lives. Assure children that we do not expect their proficiency to come easily, quickly or without stumbles and resets.
Second, show kids that learning is a lifetime process not just something that happens in the classroom. Let them hear about the challenges we face as adults which require our persistence and determination until we succeed.
Third, encourage effort. Talk about the tasks and skills which we are committed to learning both for work and for personal pleasure.
Convey that learning is valuable for its own sake, something we choose for ourselves, and not simply a burden imposed on us by others. Clue them in to the many tasks we face at work, home and in the community so they are aware of our efforts in action. Unless we call attention to our struggles, kids assume everything is effortless for us. (Obviously, we must use discretion so we avoid burdening our kids with worries that should sit squarely and solely on adult shoulders.)
Fourth, value failure as the road to success. As adults we know that instant success is a myth. Achievement results from effort, commitment and occurs in steps. Each attempt refines our learning and improves our skill, product or understanding. Comment on our own recognition of our incremental progress. (“Wow, I’m able to do that better than my previous time.”)
Remember to note our own encounters with the reality of “two steps forward, one step back.” Talk about failure in terms of how it propels learning instead of with an eye to fault-finding, comparing to others or belittling the lack of success. Convey an attitude of confidence that says success is possible. Do not play the blame game. It’s a dead-end that distracts our attention from revising to fault-finding.
Fifth, share our own struggles to learn. Even if it feels a bit silly, we can take a page out of the toddler play book and speak our inner conversations aloud. This allows kids to hear healthy, respectful self-talk. (It also ensures that we practice what we preach: encourage ourselves. Too often our inner critic is the worst bully we encounter.)
Dreams are important. They spark our creativity, however, they are “future oriented” only. We must help them move beyond “magical thinking” and exemplify for our children that it takes energy and discipline to accomplish dreams–for children and adults.
We must model through our own lives that continual practice eventually lead to “unconscious” remembering and doing. Utilizing feedback fosters flexibility that bends us in the direction most needed. Instead of regarding mistakes as disastrous and dream-ending, we can teach kids to regard them as a way to expose needed adjustments that inch them closer to the fulfillment of their dreams.
How might your family benefit from this five-pronged approach to life as a learning conversation. What possibilities might it open? How might it strengthen relationships? Practice this for two weeks and notice how it influences family morale and then share your thoughts with us.
For a fun family read, that focuses on learning through failure, check out this review of Timeless Thomas written and illustrated by Gene Barretta. It opens with the lines, “Have you ever thought about inventing something of your own? You’re never too young to try.” What a fun invitation to spark a dream in a child’s mind. Heck, I will paraphrase that quote and say, “You’re never too old to try.”