The Upside to Failure

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school – twice. J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter manuscript was turned down twelve times. Even Indy’s own Kurt Vonnegut left Butler University after he couldn’t manage more than a C in his English classes.


Failure is an unavoidable part of life. Unfortunately, we often overlook that it can also be an important way to develop resilience, determination and perseverance – especially for kids. As parents, we want our children to succeed; it can be painful to see them upset, frustrated or heartbroken. But experts stress that rushing in to fix our children’s problems instead of letting them fail can strip them of crucial learning experiences.


“When did failure become so unacceptable?” muses David R. Parker, a post-secondary disability specialist and ADD life coach at Indianapolis’ Children’s Resource Group and co-editor of the new book Becoming Self-Determined: Creating Thoughtful Learners in a Standards-Driven, Admissions-Frenzied Culture. “The problem we are increasingly seeing in high school and college students is that young people, if they do happen to fail, have no idea how to deal with it. We want to teach kids to be resilient, that failure is okay and that it’s important to learn how to get back up after you hit that bump in the road.”



Lesson #1: A quick fix isn’t always best


For parents, resisting the urge to immediately offer a solution or step in to fix a problem for their child is often a big hurdle to overcome.


“Obviously, parents don’t want their kids to fail because they don’t want them to be disappointed or feel bad, and while that’s understandable, the role of parents isn’t to protect their children from life,” stresses Dr. Angela Hunnicutt, a licensed psychologist and owner of ASH Psychological Services on Indy’s north side. “When we do it for them, what the child learns is, ‘I can’t handle this myself.’”


Parker attributes this parental urge to fix things, in part, to what he calls the “tyranny of the immediate” – a culture that has embraced a nonstop pace of urgent texts, instant social media updates and immediate email replies. “Parents get swept up in the need to fix everything right now because things move so quickly, and then we’re on to the next thing on our busy checklist,” Parker says. Instead of pausing to explore the anatomy of a mistake – what happened, how it affected others, how to do things differently in the future – we often rush to offer a quick solution so we can correct the problem and move on. “If you can halt the reaction to fix things right away, you might be more helpful in the long run by helping your children develop problem-solving skills and a greater sense of self-agency,” says Parker. “If we just rush in to fix things, what are we teaching our children?”



Lesson #2: Coaching is key


Helping children cope with failure starts with empathizing with and validating their emotions, experts say. Phrases such as, “That is disappointing. I understand why you’re upset,” and “I know it’s frustrating when things don’t work out,” allow parents to connect with their child without offering a solution.


Next, pose open-ended questions about what happened to help kids use their executive functioning skills to analyze the situation. Asking “What do you think happened?” or “What could you try that you haven’t yet?” encourages critical thinking and reasoning skills, Hunnicutt says.

“You want to get them thinking about their choices and considering their actions. Even if they come up with an idea you don’t think will work, you might say, ‘So you want to try this and see what happens?’” she says. “Then you have to back up and let them try that, allowing them to make their own mistakes.”


The coaching model is based on the notion that children can come up with their own creative solutions. It’s less about controlling what a child does, and more about influencing and guiding their actions, Parker says. “Coaches ask rather than tell. I hear from a lot of parents, ‘To be a good parent, I have to tell my son or daughter what to do here.’ But no, you don’t have to have all the answers.”



Lesson #3: Model resilient behavior


Parents can also help their children by helping them to understand that failure is okay; emphasizing that everyone makes mistakes, even moms and dads.


“I talk about my failures and mistakes a lot more now with my 4-year-old daughter,” says Indianapolis mom Katie Glass. “She loves hearing how I messed up, and then re-telling these stories again and again, like how, ‘Mommy made a mistake and forgot the water bottle on our bike ride, so we got to go to the smoothie store!’”


It’s also important to emphasize how working through a problem can eventually pay off.


“[My 3-year-old daughter] likes to hear stories about things she wasn’t able to do before but now she can. I think it gives her confidence and hope,” says Carmel mom Swathi Williams. “It’s difficult sometimes not to step in and fix, and just let her work through difficulty and frustration, but it’s so worth seeing the smile on her face when she finally gets it.”



What’s the takeaway? It’s inevitable our kids will fail at something. But children who can figure out how to manage disappointments and frustration will find a way to turn an unsuccessful experience into something positive. Failure can be one our children’s greatest teachers – if we step back and let it.

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