Teaching children that failure is an option

A decade ago, a teachers union in Great Britain floated a proposal to eliminate the word “failure” from educators’ vocabulary; they wanted to use the term “deferred success” instead. Although the proposal didn’t go anywhere, it demonstrated how much well-meaning adults fear failure in young people.failure-is-an-option

And that fear isn’t limited to British teachers, says Dr. Tim Elmore, author of 12 Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid (Harvest House Publishers, 2014). The president of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Growing Leaders, Elmore recalls a conversation from a soccer field. “I recently heard a mom say to another mom after her kids lost a soccer match, ‘Let’s just tell them it was a tie,’ ” he says.

That lie might have been comforting — assuming the kids bought it — but it wouldn’t have been constructive. “While we parents hate seeing our kids fail, I don’t think we can truly mature without facing it in life — and the earlier, the better,” Elmore says.

In fact, he argues, failure is a friend, a coach and a teacher. Without it, kids grow up to fear failure (because they’ve never experienced it) or to lack motivation (because they’ve received too many trophies just for showing up). And that’s not all. “Kids who’ve never tested their abilities grow into emotionally brittle young adults who are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression,” he says.

There might even be a connection with the phenomenon of boomerang kids. Elmore says he’s lost track of the number of college deans who’ve told him that 26 is the new 18. “When kids move back home, it’s generally not a sour economy that’s to blame. I graduated into a horrible economy but never dreamed of moving back home,” Elmore says. “We have done a better job protecting than preparing our kids for the future. Real love requires us to equip them for life.”

So how can you equip your kids for life and keep them from moving back home at age 26? Elmore offers three strategies.

Create a Safe Place to Fail

The first strategy is to create learning laboratories where failure is welcome. For example, when Elmore’s kids were younger, he and his wife put them to work when they hosted adult parties. “Our kids learned to host the parties, greet the guests at the door, introduce them to others, take their coats, and serve them food and drink,” he says. “At first, our kids thought this was so ‘cheesy,’ but they learned people skills in a safe environment and now feel comfortable interacting with people of all ages.”

The Scouting programs are also structured to be safe places for kids and teens to learn how to bounce back from failures.

Show the Benefits of Failure

Next, Elmore says, point out the benefits of failure, perhaps by telling your kids about your own struggles or about famous failures from history. In 12 Huge Mistakes, for example, Elmore talks about basketball great Michael Jordan, who said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 3,000 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeeded.”

When his kids were growing up, Elmore’s family had weekly talks about Habitudes, a Growing Leaders product that uses images to spark conversation. “Pictures are worth a thousand words,” Elmore says. “Often, the images prompted discussions about great men and women from history, like Tom Edison, Bill Gates or Abe Lincoln, who failed many times along the way.”

Help Make Failure Their Friend

Finally, Elmore says, “we need to change our scorecard for success with our kids. We must evaluate and affirm good effort, whether or not they fail in the process. Once kids realize the goal of life is not to avoid failure, they will embrace it more readily. What gets rewarded gets repeated.”

When your child fails, consider why. Did he try hard and fall short or did he really not try? “Far too often, kids fail because they don’t put out effort,” Elmore says. “Studies show that kids who are praised for their ‘effort’ rather than their ‘smarts’ turn out more resilient and are able to face greater challenges as they mature. I believe the only failure that’s harmful is the failure to ‘try.’ ”

If praise is in order, be sure to praise appropriately. “Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck reminds us we must praise variables that are in their control (such as effort, empathy or strategy) rather than variables that are out of their control (such as smarts or beauty),” Elmore says.

Of Tollbooths and Roadblocks

Elmore points out that everyone encounters obstacles along their path. The challenge is to see those obstacles as tollbooths, where you pay the price and keep moving forward, rather than roadblocks, where you get stuck. The earlier kids learn that lesson, the better off they’ll be.

“We must prepare our kids to be resilient,” Elmore says. “We must prepare the child for the path, instead of the path for the child.” And the best way to do that is to let them fail.
Which brings us back to the Professional Association of Teachers. Their proposal was right; they just had it backwards. “Failure” really is another word for “deferred success.”


  1. So in light of this article… how do you handle the Pinewood Derby?

    It is very obvious some scouts never touch the car. Some adult took the car to a machine shop to craft it and the scout sees it for the first time on race day. While another scout doesn’t have an adult interested in helping, so he does the best he can. His car doesn’t even reach the finish line.

    • Agree that a “dad’s car” is a challenge… And one that is unfair to the other boys. And one that I too almost went down that path. I would say to just keep reinforcing the message it it is a “boy lead” endeavor! And ask every boy what parts of the car they worked on, what was fun about it and what they learned.

    • How to handle Pinewood Derby and the Dad car?
      We explain to the parents and scouts that as the boy advances through the ranks the cars should naturally look worse. Why? As a tiger the boy should do about 10% of the work. Each year they do more, and more by themselves with the parent assisting when needed. Remind the scouts and the parents that the race is just the flashy event. Win or Lose when they go home to focus on the time they spent as a family working on the car and coming up the design. Talk with each other to see where you made a mistake and what you will do better next year.

      The boy that never touches the car that dad made on his own and wins first place. What does that teach the scout? Is it a hollow victory?

      • My son was a Tiger last year. We did work on his car together. He did 30-40% of the work. He did most of the sanding and half of the painting. He even nailed on the wheels with my help. I let him try the saw (coping saw, no power) and took that over before he cut himself. It came out pretty good. On race day, he came in last but was a good sport about it. He even wanted to go to the regional race to cheer on his friends. We did go and one of the boys from our den came in first over all in there class. Pindle went over and congratulated him. I am so proud of him. So far I think we are doing right by him. A few weeks after that, our pack did an adult race to raise money to get a new track. Its a good way to keep the dads busy at the same time.

    • Our pack started doing a family derby. The dads got to make their own car and race after the Cubs were done. In the last 4 years, I have only had one dad that was still a problem. Not only was the car clearly not made by the scout (further evidenced by the boy having ZERO pride in his car, nor interest in how it did in the races), but he was very confrontational about how the older boy scouts handled it, how it placed, and demanding reraces. We still stuck with our 1st, 2nd and 3rd places.

      We also hold a “crowd favorites” division for boys that are more interested in the way the car looks versus the way it handles. This is my son’s area. He could care less if it finishes a race, but he wants to have the coolest looking car every time.

      Finally, as the one checking in the cars, I always require the boys to check in their own cars (we have a parent’s area where they can take pictures of the boy checking in) and ask him a simple question: “did you do your best in building this car?” That is all we ask of the boys. A Scout is Trustworthy. If he did not do anything on the car and answers that he did his best, he has to live with that. If his parents were not involved at all and he had to cut it out with a coping saw and paint it with acrylics, then he did the best he could with his situation.

  2. Perhaps the pack should do a “kids only” round where the kids work on the cars during a pack meeting, then do an “adult round” where the big people get to play, too.

    • I’ve heard of packs that do a workshop the night before their derby. They start with fresh kits at the beginning of the evening and leave the completed cars at the location overnight to dry. This prevents dads from taking over production–or at least makes sure there are other adults around to rein them in. Also, families that don’t have access to tools have an equal chance to build decent cars.

  3. Personally, we spent a fair amount of money on after market gimmicks to make my son’s car the best. He won his pack pinewood derby 2 years running.
    If there was a bead, belt loop, pin, patch, rank badge, arrow head, award, certificate to earn or get my son got it On Pack Meeting night sometimes it took 10 minutes or more to run through the list of stuff my son earned during the month. We did activities with out den, pack, and out side of our pack. We even went outside of our pack and our council to work on stuff and attend events. If you want your son to earn stuff, and have a shirt/vest full of things you and your son must participate!

  4. Tom Peters speaks a lot on failure and its importance.

    From Tom Peters –
    -Fail. Forward. Fast. (Tech exec/Philadelphia)


    -Fail faster, succeed sooner. (David Kelley/IDEO.)

    -No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)

    -Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes. (Phil Daniels/Australian businessman)

    -“The Silicon Valley of today is built less atop the spires of earlier triumphs than upon the rubble of earlier debacles.” (Paul Saffo/tech futurist/Palo Alto)

  5. We agree. our kids are infantilized in an environment where everyone is always a winner, where everyone gets a star. My wife, Sheila Delarm and I recently published an article outlining what we’ve learned about youth development and parenting. We both worked with troubled kids and families before becoming parents ourselves, and used scouting principles to raise our son and daughter, now both successful adults who also do youth development work. http://innovationblogsite.typepad.com/newandimprovedinnovation/2014/11/12-powerful-parenting-methods-for-raising-creative-resilient-children.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.