Working With Failure
Try the rough water as well as the smooth. Rough water can teach lessons worth knowing.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today I was sent a photo by a friend; it was of her six-year-old son on the winners’ dais at his swimming carnival. I rang the young man to offer my congratulations but he informed me that he didn’t win anything. All the kids got their photos taken on the podium. Apparently, everyone was a winner. So, all the kids got to feel what it’s like to win. None of them got to experience what it’s like to lose.
This is the sort of scenario that polarises parents, teachers, and psychologists. There seem to be two camps:
- “Harden up and get on with it.” These people believe that failing makes you tougher regardless of circumstance.
- “The longer we can spare kids from the negative experience of failing, the better.” This group believes that negative experiences can spiral into low self-esteem and resistance to trying new things.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground in this debate and there are a lot of sweeping generalisations.
What is failure?
In working with children, we should perhaps remind them that failure is not some abyss into which we may fall and never return. It’s just one of the many experiences we have in life. Failure has been demonised to the point where ‘fear of failure’ is actually a thing…a very debilitating thing. It can limit our ability to try new skills and experiences, and it can cause enormous anxiety in even the most gifted kids.
How should we respond?
Learning how to approach failure is a valuable skill that doesn’t seem to appear in the school curriculum or the curriculum of life. Usual parental responses seem to be “Brush it off and move on” or a tendency to rescue. Many parents rush in to save their children. Of course they do. It hurts to see your child experience pain. But maybe there are better ways to approach it. Supporting and teaching are valid options. But where to start?
Perhaps start by teaching kids that failure varies in size and gravity. It also varies in its consequences. Being able to make these distinctions are a great way for kids to start learning about failure instead of just ‘feeling’ it. If your child is able to articulate the nature of their perceived or real failure, they have a better chance of managing their feelings about it.
If success and failure are to be perceived as more than just reward and punishment, feedback needs to be provided. The experience needs to be seen as an opportunity to provide clues as to what will work in the future. Sometimes the feedback might be, “I need to better plan my English essays”, sometimes it might just be, “English isn’t my strongest subject but it’s okay because I totally aced my Maths”.
Success in post-school work life is often born of finding what you have a talent for, working hard, and then capitilising on that talent. Every child has strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to schools and parents to provide opportunities for children to figure out what their strengths are and work towards them. We are also required to help them discover what their weaknesses are, and then how to work through or around them.
If kids are to learn from success and failure, the environment can’t be focused on success being the pinnacle and failure the enemy. Admittedly that is incredibly difficult when university entrance and national testing dictate to schools. However, it shouldn’t stop us from aiming high in the learning stakes. The learning is what will last the test of time.
Sometimes the biggest problems with resilience occur in the most unlikely people. High achieving girls seem particularly affected. One English girls’ school sees it as such a problem that they have introduced Failure Week.
Wimbledon Girls High School achieves outstanding academic results but acknowledges it has a problem with anxiety around failure. Consequently, they have created a program where girls have to try completely unfamiliar activities where they are unlikely to be expert, failure is expected. They have well-known speakers who discuss what they have learnt from failure and how failure taught them to be successful. The girls are taught the benefits of failure: resilience, analysis and commitment.
Principal, Heather Hanbury, told the BBC, “The girls need to learn how to fail well – and how to get over it and cope with it. Fear of failing can be really crippling and stop the girls doing things they really want to do…they can sometimes overreact to failure even though it can sometimes be enormously beneficial to them.” Her objective is clear; “We want them to be brave – to have courage in the classroom.”
How do we build courageous learners?
- Normalise failure; don’t react as though it is something to be afraid of. It is one of the many facets of life we experience on a regular basis. It can be painful but it can also be useful.
- Empower children to take full responsibility for failure, and success, without laying blame or making excuses.
- Teach kids to look at failure in an analytical way. What is the size and gravity of the failure? What are its consequences? Don’t let them dwell too long on the feeling of failure.
- Give specific feedback after a failure. What can be learnt from the experience? What is useful information going forward?
- Encourage kids to try lots of activities; physical and intellectual. Help them figure out their strengths and weaknesses. Then help them to work with their strengths and weaknesses.
- Create a home environment that celebrates safe risk-taking. Encourage kids to be creative, give their opinion and justify it, try new things – even if they feel they might look or feel silly the first time.
- Try not to equate success with reward and failure with punishment.
- Positively reinforce grace. We all need to succeed and fail with equal measures of grace.