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Learning How To Fail

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Apr 14, 2015

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When I teach classes on Positive Psychology, I ask postgraduate students to share a life event that was difficult for them—a crisis, possibly, or setback, or disappointment. Then, I ask them to write about what the event taught them. Every time, I’m amazed at how everyone finds the event, which was a setback at the time, ultimately empowering. People point out that they developed inner-strength in a moment of crisis, or that their natural resilience and grit emerged because of the setback.  Because of this, I call these events ‘strength experiences,’ which people can recall and fall back on to help them through adversity in the future.

When we, as a culture, refuse to tell our children stories about failure, turmoil, and personal struggles, we are denying them the experience of learning to fail, and turning these failures into ‘strength experiences.’ Stories that are filled with grandeur abound, stories about achievements, lofty goals, and the near-perfect lives of influential achievers. Seldom do we choose to focus on how everyone from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) to Walt Disney encountered major failures before tasting success.

We need to tell children about our struggles, learnings, and yes, even our failures. When I share this idea, many people are quick to express concern that this may be too harsh for children to handle. But everyone faces failure, and if children learn early that resilience, perseverance, and a sense of initiative often emerge from failure, they will be better prepared when they meet it in their own lives. As Tal Ben Shahar, author and psychology lecturer at Harvard University, says, “One of the mantras that I often repeat over and over again to myself and my students is: Learn to fail, or fail to learn. It’s through failure that we can enjoy deep learning.”

Possibly nothing teaches us as much as learning failure does, which is why, in addition to teaching our children about others’ failure, we must let them experience their own. But do we? In 1969, psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott coined the term Helicopter Parenting. Ginott said that the teenagers he saw would often describe their parents hovering over them like a helicopter. More than sixty years later, Helicopter Parents, or Cosseting Parents, are still over-parenting, over-controlling, and over-involving themselves in their children’s lives: After I suggested that a teenage patient keep a journal as part of her treatment, her mother admitted that she wrote the journal entries on her daughter’s behalf. Another parent does not allow her son to play with other children in the playground, as he may fall or get into fights. Raising children in sterile environments and shielding them constantly from mistakes and failures can impair their confidence and ability to learn. Research has shown that helicopter parenting inhibits children’s social skills and accountability and fosters unhealthy dependency and a deep fear of failure.

As a parent, it is important to understand the impact of what you tell your children. Telling a child that he or she is not good at anything would unnecessarily hinder him. At the same time, saying he can do everything may be an unnecessary stressor and inhibit him from taking risks. The key lies in striking a balance. It lies in letting children explore, learn, take baby steps towards independence, and use trial-and-error to figure out how the world operates. This builds a sense of initiative, curiosity and self-confidence, which, combined, can be an antidote to fear of failure. But how do parents walk this fine line?

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, says that when a child does well, parents need to praise his or her efforts, rather than inherent intellect or abilities. When children encounter failure – or success – feedback needs to be about the process of engagement and strategies that children can incorporate in a future endeavor, so they grow from the experience. That means that we, as parents, should start attributing our children’s failures and successes to effort, rather than ability. It’s the difference between saying, when a child attempts to solve a puzzle: “I see you are really intelligent; I knew you would do it,” and, “I’m happy to see you put in an effort in order to solve the puzzle patiently.”

Just as we learn cycling only after falling off a bike a few times, so we learn in all aspects of life. Maybe if we, as parents, can reframe failure as a learning process driven by effort, we can teach our children to embrace it. As Bill Gates says: “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it’s more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

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Written By Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta is a practicing clinical psychologist with 10 years of experience. She conducts workshops to enhance the emotional well-being of couples, parents and children. She can be reached at sonaligupta297@gmail.com. You can find more of Sonali’s thoughts on Twitter (@guptasonali) and on her website, guptasonali.com

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