In Praise of Failure

It’s hard to watch your kid fail at something. It’s hard to watch them be disappointed or discouraged by it. Why is that? Why does failing get treated as an unwanted experience?

I think it’s becuase we’re taught in a thousand ways every day to view failure as a reflection on our fundamental worth. We come to believe that our ability to perform is a reflection of our essential goodness and value as human beings. But this, of course, is completely wrong.

Babies, for example, are terrible at, well, just about everything. When they’re first born, they can’t talk, they can barely see, they can’t hold their heads up. Their best skill is probably sleeping — and a lot of babies are pretty terrible at that, too. For the first 24 months of life outside the womb, babies are basically going to fail at everything they try over and over again, until they stop failing at those things. One day, they start babbling. Another day they start holding their head up. Later, they form some basic words. Eventually, they get up on two feet and start walking. As parents, we celebrate every one of those successes, looking past the hundreds of times they failed in the leadup to each new victory. Why do we celebrate? Because we see that they are learning.

At some point, though, something switches. We start to have expectations for what our kids should be able to do. And we start to evaluate them in terms of how they perform rather than on whether they are trying to learn. We may not put things in such explicit terms, but in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our behavior suggests that there is a side of us that can be disappointed in them. Will this ruin our kids forever? Probably not, but I don’t ever want my son to get the message from me that his value and worth to me is in any way wrapped up in how obedient, kind, or [fill-in-the-blank] he is. I want him to know that he is intrinsically worthy of my love, because he’s my son. Full stop.

So what does that look like for me? First, I do my best (though I certainly fail sometimes) to avoid totalizing my son’s behavior with my compliments. That means avoiding global statements that attempt to characterize him as being a certain way all the time (e.g., “You’re always such a good listener,” or “You are such a kind boy”). Because the fact is even thoughtful people are thoughtless sometimes, and good people are bad sometimes. When my son fails to be thoughtful or is outright mean to a friend, I want him to recognize it and try harder the next time, but I want the failure to help him learn something about himself — I don’t want it to result in him feeling bad for disappointing me. By the way, this also goes for totalizing behavior in negative terms as well (e.g., “You’re always running late,” or “You never listen when I’m talking to you.”).

Second, when I praise my son, I try to focus on the specific action that I appreciate, reflect back what I see him doing, and avoid judgements about his character. For example, “You shared your toys with your friends. That was a thoughtful thing to do.” In this case, I’ve reinforced for him a behavior that is pro-social, complimented him on being nice, and avoided suggesting that his value is wrapped up in the observation. I can quickly change the tone of that compliment by adding a totalizing statement such as, “You’re always so thoughtful,” or, worse yet, a people-pleasing statement like, “It makes me happy when you share.” As soon as I add one of these components, I’ve made the compliment more about me, my expectations, and my feelings in the situation than about his behavior. I’ve also subtly communicated an expectation that he should be thoughtful all the time, or that my happiness is, on some level, his responsibility.

Finally, when he messes up or fails at something, the first thing I want him to do is reflect on what he can learn from the situation. This is easier said than done, but I want him to know that failing is about learning — not about shame and feeling unworthy. Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx (yes, I’m using an example from the CEO of a women’s undergarment company), tells about how her father would ask every day, “So, what did you fail at today?” His hope was that he would hear about some way in which his daughter was learning, growing, and trying new things every day. He instilled in her the mindset that failure is just part of the process of success, and is even a reflection of dreaming big.

These three principles are not only good for our kids. They are good for us too. I feel as though I fail at being the kind of parent I really want to be nearly every day. When that happens, it’s easy to totalize my failure and tell myself, “You’re a terrible dad.” It’s also easy to get caught up in parenting to please somebody else or meet somebody else’s expectations. And lastly, it’s easy to let failure become a reason to feel shame or worthlessness as a parent. In reality, failing at being your ideal self as a parent is the best opportunity to stop, examine the situation, and try to learn how to do it better the next time. Every failure is an opportunity to be better.

So this week, celebrate some failures! Figure out what you can learn from them. Give yourself a high-five for being awesome enough to have standards and aspirations for the kind of parent you want to be. Meanwhile, remember that your kids are going to drop the ball this week, too. Give them grace, help them see the opportunity to learn, and whatever you do, tell them you love them, especially when they try and fail.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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