Teaching your child to fail

Feb 23, 2018

“I hope you become someone who learns to fall.” That’s advice a very wise friend of mine gave to my 18-year-old daughter when she left for university. We gave her a diary as a going away present, and I had asked our close friends and family to write in it things they wished they had known when they went to college. 

There are certain lessons only to be found in falling. After all, how is it that one learns to walk in the first place? Those tenuous reaches for edges of chairs and low tables, lifting oneself up; the fearful launch into space; the feeling of being unbalanced. It’s a breathtaking moment of uncertainty. Yet without willingness to risk falling, learning to walk would not happen. 

Falling Happens – and You Can’t Fix It

As a parent, it’s so difficult to watch your child fall – as a toddler taking those first unsteady steps; as a preschooler sent to time out for hitting; as a school-age child with no one to sit with in the lunchroom; as a high school student who bombs the SATs. 

I remember my daughter as a preschooler chasing a little blonde boy whom she “loved,” and being told, both by him and the teacher, a nurturing but strict woman, to leave him alone. He did not love her back. She came home, her little body curled into a ball, wracked with sobs. 

My heart broke for her. I would have given anything to take that sadness away. But of course, I could not. So instead I held her and I cried, too. It was the first of life’s many inevitable emotional falls. Some friendships end. Some tests in school are hard. Sometimes we lose the people we love.

Developing a Growth Mindset

Why is it that some of us shrink from failure, while others lean in, dig deep, and persist? Carole Dweck, a developmental psychology researcher, has been asking that question for 40 years. She talks about it as the difference between having a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. 

A fixed mindset is one in which a child believes they are the sum total of their abilities – that failing a test means I am a failure. It’s the strongly held belief that one does not have the capacity to succeed and the core schema, or deeply ingrained thought pattern, that I am not enough. 

A growth mindset is one in which a child approaches failure as an obstacle to overcome. It’s a sign that they must work harder, change their strategy, or ask for help. It comes from a sense that they have what they need – they just need to get better at accessing and using it, learning as they go, through practice.

It comes from a sense that they have what they need—they just need to get better at accessing and using it, learning as they go, through practice.

Having a growth mindset requires two important ingredients: the first is allowing oneself to feel sad and scared and uncertain about what the next steps might be. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a type of evidence-based psychotherapy I practice and train other professionals in, this is what we call acceptance. It does not mean tolerating or enduring the status quo; rather, it means allowing oneself to “feel all the feels” that come up in the moment. It means having the willingness to be vulnerable, to be a beginner. Only in accessing this space can children begin to open their eyes, look around, and see what possible next steps might be.

If children learn to welcome whatever they’re feeling in the present moment, it makes them more flexible and paves the way for them to apply the second important ingredient: learning from the world around them. Psychologists Louise Hayes and Joseph Ciarrochi, in their excellent new book The Thriving Adolescent, describe this skill in teen-friendly terms as discovery. It requires purposeful attention to how one’s behavior works in the world and learning by trial and error. 

Accessing the part of oneself that is a discoverer requires the willingness to step back from deeply held beliefs and to be open to new and sometimes scary outcomes. It’s through the discovery process that children begin to learn who they are, and how to build a place for themselves in the world where they feel they belong. It’s the beginning of a lifelong journey in creating a life that they love.

Teaching your Children to Fail Well

Why is it so hard for us as parents to watch our children fail? It’s antithetical to the whole parenting enterprise, isn’t it? We work hard for years to ensure that our children have the tools to succeed. It’s heartbreaking for us when they experience hurt, fear, and sadness. We want to rush in and pick them up and set them back on their feet.

But here is the crux of the matter: We need to step back and allow ourselves to be vulnerable too – to fail at protecting our children from their feelings. When we strive to insulate our children from difficult emotions, we are taking away some of the most important learning moments they will ever have. Protection from falling-both literally and figuratively-is prevention from learning. So from one parent to another, what helps me is pausing and asking myself this question: In the service of helping my child discover how to rise, to persist, and to thrive, am I willing to help them learn how to experience falling? 

So this is my wish for you: help your children learn the skill of how to truly fail well. As Will Smith says, help them to fail early, fail often, and fail forward. Help them see that hard emotions are not closed and impenetrable doors, but rather, some of our best teachers and guides. Show them by your own example – help them learn how to feel by allowing yourself to feel and sharing your own emotions. Help them to learn, as my good friend Ted Davis wrote to my daughter in her going-away to college journal, how to “leave it all on the field.” In the end, the well-worn cliché is right: it’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. That is where the lessons are. In falling, they will learn how to rise.

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa W. Coyne, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, a Research Associate Professor at Suffolk University, and a clinical psychologist who researches, delivers, and trains acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and other evidence-based mindfulness interventions with young people struggling with OCD. She is the founder of the McLean OCD Institute for Children and Adolescents (OCDI Jr.).