Failure is often described as the opposite of success, but not many successful people have soared to the top without making mistakes, learning from them, and bouncing back along the way.
In recent years teachers and other child development professionals have noted a trend of lower tolerance for failure amongst children, resulting in a shaky sense of independence and less likelihood of taking the risks that help us succeed.
What accounts for this trend?
The Fine Line Between Parenting Enough and Parenting Too Much
The value of attachment and interacting with our children is well established, and parents are paying more attention to their children’s emotional development as the benefits of emotional intelligence become clear. It’s possible, though, for parents to take concern for their children’s wellbeing too far as they try to shield them from unpleasant experiences, like trying and failing (sometimes over and over) while learning a new skill.
At this stage in your baby’s life, her failures are small-scale: Learning how to use a spoon and dropping half the food in the process. Trying to put a triangle in the square space on a shape puzzle. Falling while learning to walk. It’s hard to watch her struggle. It turns out, though, that knowing how to cope with missing the mark is one of the hallmarks of emotional intelligence and is associated with several positive outcomes, including:
Experience & Mastery
Accomplishing a challenging task involves failing and trying again (and again). For your little one, this may be learning to grasp a toy or put on shoes. If you jump in to hand her the toy or put her shoes on for her at the first sign of frustration, she gets less practice with these tasks and may take longer to achieve the skills.
Getting past inevitable failures in order to master a task builds your child’s sense that she is capable, which gives her the confidence to try new things. When you try to protect your child from the frustration involved in learning, you may actually send the message that you don’t believe she is capable.
Children who aren’t comfortable with failure look to others to help them accomplish tasks. A toddler learning to put on clothes may avoid the frustration involved by refusing to do it by herself. A toddler who is encouraged to keep trying, on the other hand, learns to master the task and consistently do it on her own.
Children who are afraid to fail take fewer risks. They avoid failure by only doing things they know they can achieve.
Children who aren’t afraid of doing something “wrong” are more likely to take creative risks. If a child is corrected for drawing a person with eight arms instead of two, she may shy away from using her imagination for fear of doing something wrong.
Children who are allowed to fail learn how to keep it in perspective and bounce back from it, which over time leads to an overall quality of resilience.
What This Means for You
Here’s what you can start doing now to teach your little one how to cope with failure:
Allow her to feel frustration (within reason). As long as her frustration isn’t turning into a full-blown meltdown, letting her struggle a little helps her learn to feel comfortable with the effort and missteps involved in learning.
Empathize and encourage. Showing her that you understand how she feels lets her know that frustration is a natural part of learning. Encouraging her to keep trying sends the all-important message don’t give up, which can get lost when we protect our little ones from struggling with something.
Do it with her, not for her. When she needs your help, you can say: Let’s try together, or Let me show you and then you can try. If she doesn’t want to try something because she knows it’s hard, you can reassure her that if she tries on her own first and has trouble, you’ll help her.
Leave room for creativity. If she wants to feed a stuffed animal by putting a toy bottle to his foot instead of his mouth, let her go for it. The more she feels it’s acceptable to try things in different ways, the more likely she’ll be to take creative risks.
Your baby won’t feel the disappointment of a low grade or a soccer game loss for a while yet, but the effort you put in now to help her feel comfortable with failure will make it easier for her to bounce back from larger-scale missteps in the future.