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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.

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.”