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Why teaching children success is more important than participation

Matthew Arrington

Failure isn’t the opposite of success — it’s the absence of it. Think back to the first time you failed. It stung, but most importantly, it lingered. That lingering pain breeds our hunger to succeed. This lesson is necessary because the world we live in has become increasingly competitive and unforgiving for those who can’t take the heat.

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That feeling is now inversely correlated to how we teach our children to handle failure. In today’s society, everyone wins. Sure, it’s a good feeling in the short term, but it can stunt long-term personal development.

Out of that hindered growth has risen the “participation generation” — and with it a fundamental problem. In many of the activities we involve our children in, we see failure as a detrimental experience. In reality, the only real harm that can be done is not allowing kids to experience adversity at all.

In my family, I allow my children to receive awards in their first few athletic outings to gain a sense of accomplishment. After that, I stress that trophies are for just first, second and third place.

I’m not against going out for ice cream in the event they don’t place. But trophies and medals should mean more than ice cream — they signify that you are among the best of the best. A parent’s job isn’t to simply raise children into adults — it’s to arm them with the skills they need to be successful as independent adults.

Your kids shouldn’t just be happy to be in the game — they should play to win. Here’s what parents can do to help their kids get there.

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1. Ask questions

Don’t be too quick to dole out advice. Instead, ask questions that foster forethought. This approach helps shift the focus toward a solution rather than just the problem. Teaching kids to confront an issue can be the first step to overcoming it.

Child: “Mom, I’m really bummed I didn’t make the basketball team.”

Parent: “I’m sorry, son. Why do you think you didn’t make it, and what do you plan to do differently to give yourself a better shot next time?” 

2. Encourage them to chase the experience

Let your children enjoy the process of pursuing an interest. Show them how to experience new things without feeling like they’re being limited.

If your child says, “I want to try archery,” tell him, “OK, that sounds fun!” Taking the preceding steps shows your child that the venture is worthwhile even if he can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Your child won’t feel ashamed — he’ll feel like he has yet another experience to add to his quiver of growth and knowledge. Win or lose, the journey can help inform future success.

3. Don’t intervene prematurely

Actively trying to fix all your children’s problems is instinctual for parents. However, while done out of love, this approach ultimately does more harm than good.

The act sends two harmful messages: that they’ll never have to fend for themselves and that you don’t trust in their ability to work things out alone. Let them believe they are capable. More often than not, that belief helps kids rise to the occasion.

Everyone can’t win. It’s imperative that parents teach their children this fact early. It will strengthen not only your bond with your children, but also their resolve to become something significant on their own.

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