Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
It takes character and grit to fail repeatedly and keep on persisting toward a goal, but that is what successful people do.
How do we teach our kids to be resilient in the face of setbacks and failure? We must first stop being afraid that our kids will fail. Failure is a natural and even helpful part of life. Then, when our kids do fail, we need to stop rescuing them. When we rescue our kids, we rob them of a valuable learning opportunity.
Jessica Lahey tackles the question of how to help our kids navigate failure in her book The Gift of Failure.
“We have taught our kids to fear failure and, in doing so, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success…Out of love and a desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness,” writes Lahey. “Unfortunately, in doing so, we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient.”
Here are two ways to help our kids learn from failures:
1) Expect Kids to Take Responsibility and Experience Consequences of Failure
When our homeschooled students are able to be accountable outside of the home to other adults—through co-op groups, tutors and teachers, extracurricular activities, church, and other groups—we should take advantage of these as learning opportunities.
Middle school is the perfect time for kids to fail. The stakes are low. If our kids have a paper that is due at homeschool co-op, or a lunch that is supposed to be packed for a field trip, middle-aged and older kids are capable of learning to handle these things. They will likely fail in the process, but will then be stronger for it.
“The key to helping kids develop the systems they need to develop executive function is to let them fail, let them feel the pain and inconvenience of their mistakes, and then support them in their efforts to rework the bugs. Try, fail, suffer a little, remedy, try again. Over and over again until they learn,” says Lahey. “A few missed lunches or zero on the homework assignment she left on the counter will reinforce these skills better than your lecturing or nagging ever will.”
“Every intervention or rescue is a lesson lost. Our kids need every minute, every learning opportunity inherent in their failures we can grant them, before they face the much greater consequences and challenges that await them right around the corner in high school.”
2) Let Older Kids Take Ownership of their Schedule and Chores and Give them Choices
I also appreciated what Lahey had to say about giving kids choices. As the parent, I should establish non-negotiable expectations such as what I expect my kids to accomplish in a day, or what time the kids need to be home, etc. But, “after those expectations are made clear, older children should have the autonomy to figure out the precise manner and strategy they will use to fulfill these expectations…where, when, and how things are done should be up to them.”
When kids are young, we rightfully feed them numerous, very specific instructions, because they need it! I think it’s difficult sometimes, when kids reach the middle-ages of childhood, for us parents to scale back and stop instructing them so much. At this point, we need to be empathetic, but let our kids struggle to solve their own problems while giving feedback rather than specific directions.
It’s okay, for instance, if our children load the dishwasher differently than we do. We need to let them set some of their own parameters and take ownership of their chores, rather than specifically dictating everything to them as we did when they were younger.
I want my kids to know that they are not a failure just because they have failed. All successful people fail before they succeed. I want them to look for lessons in their mistakes and emerge triumphant.
In order for them to do this, I must take a step back, encourage them along the way, and allow them to fail. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; second image courtesy of Amy Koons.