Letting Kids Fail, and Feeling Okay About It

It seems almost like a truism to say that parents don’t like to see their kids in pain.  Even if it’s not your kid, if you see a child wipe out on the playground, there is some reflexive mechanism that makes you gasp.  And in general, it is the responsibility of care taking adults to prevent harm from coming to their little ones.

The problem is, as kids grow older, their challenges are not as simple as a scraped knee where we can run to the rescue with a band aid and a kiss.  Sometimes kids are hurt because they feel excluded, or lonely, or confused about why a friend did something mean. Sometimes they are trying to put a puzzle together and just aren’t getting it, and it’s frustrating.  

In these moments, it’s hard to switch off our lovely, well intentioned, supportive brain and let them be.  We want to help, to problem solve, to give them tools. It’s hard to separate the pain your child is going through from your pain witnessing it.  And with the clouded vision of suffering, we often miss the opportunity to allow kids to fail for their own good.  

If we embrace the mindset of more is possible than is seen on the surface, failure seems less finite, and less damaging.  Not only that, there is real value in the experience of failing at something, doing some self reflection, and trying something else.  This is a tool that kids can use, but they have to practice it, and they don’t get to practice if they don’t experience the failure in the first place.  

How do we make the most out of moments of failure?

It hurts to feel like you just messed up.  It’s good for it to hurt. There are mountains of research showing that resisting or denying feelings causes all types of mental health issues and physical disease.  And, most of the time, resisting feelings keeps us stuck, so it’s a doubly bad plan.

We have to hold space for kids to feel their feelings by listening and being present, but then what?  Here’s how we can transform moments of failure into productive opportunities for growth:

Helping kids think about how they are thinking is key.  How kids think about what just happened can make the difference between a spiral of negative emotions, or an AHA moment.  

Moments of failure don’t produce their full potential for learning when we personalize them and make an event or experience into a permanent character trait:

If your child has a bad outing at their first baseball game, “I’m terrible at baseball” will produce negative emotions, and point your child away from where she has agency.  We can help children see the impermanence of failure, and reconnect them to a sense of choice, by repeating back to them what they’ve said, but with a slight twist:

Child: “I’m terrible at baseball.”

Parent: “You struck out 5 times and got one hit today.  You can practice lining the ball up with the bat at home, and after a while you won’t strike out as much.”

Notice the parent:

  1. Was specific in their description of what happened and tied the experience to a limited moment in time.

  2. Emphasized what the child could do (choice).

  3. Didn’t try to soften the blow of the feeling of failure.  (“It’s okay honey, 1 for 6 isn’t that bad”)

Next time your child is feeling bad about messing up try this process:

  1. Hold space for the emotions as they are.  Don’t try to rationalize them away or “put them in context”.  Kids hate that. Just stay present.

  2. Listen to what your child is saying and pay attention for statements that tie an experience to a personal quality of themselves.

  3. Without denying their experience, restate what happened, emphasize details and make it time bound.  

  4. Point them towards their agency and power to change.  Name specific actions they could take now or in the future.

  5. Pause and see what happens.  Don’t expect anything right in the moment.  Change manifests in many different ways. Remember: More is possible than is seen on the surface.

Ben HowortComment