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Teaching kids to handle failure

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

How to deal with disappointment

It is important to teach kids how to handle failure and disappointment. Like every parent I know, I want only the best for my kids. I want them to succeed and to be happy, and I am willing to help them in this- as appropriate, of course. But I've also realized over the years, that for my kids to be truly happy and successful adults, they also need to learn how to handle failure. And I'd rather they learn about failure and how to handle it now, when we as parents can help them through it, than when they are older and the consequences are higher.

Upset BoyI noticed a few months ago that my younger son was getting pretty used to things going his way - and without too much effort on his part. Some of this is age, some of this is circumstance, and some of it may just be luck. As much as I love seeing him succeed in all he tries, I became a little concerned. He was getting pretty complacent and blase about various successes. He was starting to develop a bit of a bloated ego. He clearly needed greater challenge.As it happened, about this time, I had a regularly scheduled meeting with his teacher, and brought this up. She had noticed some similar behaviors, similar expectations. We agreed that challenging him a little more in some areas would be appropriate - that perhaps having to work a little harder in some subjects could help his overall perspective. While we would never set him up to fail, if, in these greater challenges, he failed in some way, it probably would be a "good" thing - good for him to understand that you can't always get what you want, good for him to have to try a little harder to succeed, and good for him to appreciate the successes he has had - and we would allow it to happen rather than intervene.

You can't always get what you want

While Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones were singing about something rather different, the sentiment is true: You can't always get what you want. Sometimes, no matter what your effort or ability level, you might not be able to achieve something you want. As a kid, you may want to play first base on the All-Star team, and you may try your hardest, and be really good, but you still might not get that position. As an adult, it might be a job. Part of growing up is recognizing this reality - and learning what to do when it happens. Part of being a parent is knowing when to step in and help in a constructive way and when to step back and allow natural consequences to happen. Both are difficult lessons!

Appreciating success by learning about failure

When one fails at something, I think one appreciates successes even more. I cannot count the number of failures in my own life - there are far too many of them! - but those failures have helped me understand the kind of effort it takes to succeed, and to appreciate it when I do succeed. When a failure happens, big or small, I want my kids to be able to bounce back from it having learned something. There will be times that these things will happen with little to no fault of their own - and that in itself is important to learn. But other times they can learn that there might have been a different approach, a different effort that might have affected the outcome. Rather than dwelling on a failure, I want my kids to learn to acknowledge and accept what happened, evaluate why it happened and what, if anything, they could have done differently, pick themselves up, and keep trying.

Safe times to fail

When kids are younger - when the stakes are lower - allowing them to learn about what failure means and how to handle it can be extremely helpful for their future lives. I would much rather challenge my kids at this young age and risk a minor failure in, let's say, a 3rd grade reading test, then have them learn the lesson in high school when the stakes are much higher. And if they learn a lesson about failure and effort and appreciation for success now, I hope the risk of failure at that later time will be lower.A short time into this bigger challenge experiment, my son has continued to have successes, but he's had a few bits of failure thrown in. They shocked him at first, but opened the way for some good discussions. The ego definitely is tempering. The lesson is in process.

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