Parents want their children to succeed in school and in life – but psychologists, educators and even religious leaders concur that it’s important to teach kids how to fail. While it’s excruciating to step back and let your children stumble, it’s wise to let them fail rather than swooping in to fix the problem.
“There is so much pressure on kids today to be the best that it’s important parents let their children know that failing will happen sometimes and that it is totally OK,” writes clinical psychologist Dr. Jamie Howard of the Child Mind Institute. “In fact, it’s brave to try something new knowing that it might not work out.”
Teaching kids to be resilient and to rebound from failure helps them not only learn, but develop ways to handle frustration and disappointment – feelings that will recur during their career and personal lives.
“We try to teach our students that there are difficult times and adversity, but that it doesn’t mean you as a person are a failure; it means that you’re struggling,” says Michelle Stout, coordinator of the Auxiliary Studies Department at Santa Margarita Catholic High School. “It teaches students how to advocate for themselves and be more persistent in life. Life is not perfect.”
Deborah Blashaw, director of Student Support Services at Servite High School, notes that “there’s not one person who wouldn’t agree that the best lessons they learned in life were from failure. That’s where the real growth happens.”
At Servite, Blashaw says, the alumni who return to support the school are often the ones who were on the verge of being kicked out for academic failure and dug in to figure out what they needed to do. They also are the men who understand firsthand the struggles of students who need the mentoring that Servite provides.
“My money’s on the kid who’s hit a wall and has to learn to get over it,” Blashaw says. “Those life skills are going to serve them well. They have to have grit, perseverance, negotiation skills – and they must learn to rely on others. These, too, are the men who learn compassion for others who struggle.”
Dr. Howard offers parents four suggestions for helping children develop resilience:
When you see that you children is struggling or having a hard time, empathize.
Explain to your child that everyone fails. Offer a story about a time when you yourself failed.
Look at failure as a chance to teach your child a lesson about resiliency.
If at first you don’t succeed, try again.
“The message we try to share with parents is that failure is good. Making mistakes and failing is how they learn,” says Jeannette Lambert, vice principal for Advancement of Curriculum and Technology at St. Francis of Assisi School, a preK-8 parish school in Yorba Linda. “We help them get the support they need to get back up and learn from the reason that they failed.”
Using the Way of the Cross as an example, Lambert says she reminds students that Jesus fell three times on the way to Calvary and Simon helped Him carry the cross. “Our failures are not as painful as the Way of the Cross,” she says, “but because we weren’t successful the first time we can learn from the bad grade we got on a test and understand what we didn’t before.”
Father Gerald M. Horan, Diocese of Orange Vicar of Faith Formation, agrees that Jesus Himself sets the ultimate example for Catholic parents and children of how failure leads ultimately to success. He died on the cross, rejected by His society and his peers, labeled as a criminal. Yet out of his failure came victory – new life that changed the world.
“The life-giving mystery of His experience is the pattern for all Christians,” Father Horan says. “We are challenged, as St. Paul declares, to unite our crosses and failures with His, so that the victory of His resurrection can be ours as well. His example and the central mystery of our faith is about turning failure into newness of life.”