There’s practically a new made-up holiday (or 10) every day, but International Day for Failure on October 13 really caught our eye this year. It’s a holiday Finland created in 2010 because many worried that a fear of flopping was preventing its citizens from trying new things, effectively dampening entrepreneurial spirit. This is a worry we can identify with, albeit on a smaller scale, as we witness our own kids being reluctant to take on new activities, or quick to abandon them, because they fear failure.
That’s why we decided that International Day for Failure is all parents should embrace, starting this year as we so fervently hover over our children’s Zoom classes and carefully monitor their socially distant activities. Children are experiencing enough anxiety as it is; it’s time they start learning to celebrate their failures too. Rather than spout our own pseudoscience and platitudes like “try, try again,” we enlisted the help of child and adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg to weigh in on our thesis.
With all due respect to the Finns, Greenberg suggested that maybe “failure” isn’t the best word to use with our kids.
“A better word would be disappointment, because it captures the feeling” she said. Not succeeding in any way — by not making a good grade, not making a team, or not creating the work they envisioned in their head — is disappointing to children, just as it is to adults.
Whether we call it failure or disappointment, it’s a feeling from which we shouldn’t shield our children.
“If you are prevented from feeling that as a child and as a teenager, when you’re faced with it as an adult, you won’t have the strategies to deal with it,” Greenberg explained. “You need to develop the strategies as a child.”
Well, if we can’t protect our children from disappointment, how can we help them develop those strategies? The first step is to learn to tolerate that feeling. Disappointment isn’t fun to experience, but it’s easier to handle if they can simply say to themselves and to you, I’m disappointed I didn’t do X.
Then, we can encourage them to view that disappointment in perspective and realize that it doesn’t have to define their whole day. They can move on from that feeling and onto something else.
Believe in second chances
Just because we want them to tolerate failure or disappointment doesn’t mean they should love it so much they don’t try to do their best at things. They can be OK with disappointment AND they can realize that they have a chance to get a different outcome the next time they try that thing.
“In life there are second chances and re-dos,” Greenberg said. “We get to do things over. Number two, we have to talk about the importance of practice.”
When something he does doesn’t turn out right, my son’s first response is often to declare that he never wants to do it again. I recognize that impulse in myself, and it’s heartbreaking to think of him closing himself off to things he might enjoy because the first time didn’t go well. Greenberg encouraged parents to make sure their children try the thing they failed at a couple of more times before giving up.
“Because it’s not only about activities, it also extends into interpersonal relationships,” she explained. “If they make a mistake when they’re talking to somebody and somebody gets upset, they might give up on that relationship, when I’d rather have the person learn to say, ‘Can we start again?'”
On the other hand, if your kid tries to play the violin or soccer a few times and they’re still not enjoying it, it’s OK to move on and try something else. We’re not into torturing our kids.
Drop ‘perfect’ from your vocabulary
Trying our best does not have to equal trying to be THE best, and it’s important for children to learn that early on as well. The standard of being “perfect” at anything is too vague to achieve in most cases, Greenberg pointed out, so it’s never a good idea to encourage our kids to strive for that.
To avoid making our kids perfectionists, which in Greenberg’s experience often coincides with them being anxious (though she can’t pinpoint which comes first), we have to be careful of how we speak to them about both their accomplishments and their failures.
Regardless of the outcome, try to praise the work they put into something instead of its results. You can also try asking what they learned from an experience or class instead of how they did.
Parents can also be good role models in this respect.
“Model engaging in activities that you’re not so great at but that you enjoy,” Greenberg said. “Have a balance. You do things that you’re great at and things you’re not so great at — but that you get some joy from.”
In other words, we parents need to enjoy our failures — sorry, disappointments first, before we can hope for our children to do the same.
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