If you want to devastate an American kid, call him of her a “loser.” Losers are the ones who go home empty-handed, who don’t get invited back to pay the next game, and who spend their entire lives sitting on the sidelines while the winners are calling the shots.
Popular culture in the US is heavily influenced by athletics, and the idea of competition has spilled over into every aspect of child . For many parents, successful parenting means setting goals for a child, and withholding approval and love until those goals are met.
Nowhere in this parenting philosophy is there an understanding that parenting children through their failures is far more likely to help them become successful than parenting them to avoid failure will.
Children come into the world with their survival instincts fully developed, even if they aren’t physically capable of caring for themselves. So when they get old enough to pick up on the idea that failure is a threat to their survival, simply because the people who care for them aren’t happy when they fail, they’ll find ways to avoid failure. Parenting kids to live with failure will require Mom and Dad to watch for certain avoidance tactics.
Kids who know they are likely to fail at a certain activity will find ways to avoid participating. They will feign injury or develop a sudden headache or stomach ache; they will forget their gym shoes; they will lose hide the permission slip for the activity; or they will simply refuse to participate and start making fun of those who do. They are protecting themselves from failure by avoiding involvement.
Another tactic children develop to avoid failure is to find someone or something to blame. “The grass on the playground was wet so I couldn’t run at full speed or I would have won.” “My book report was better than Jane’s but she got an A and I only got a B because the teacher likes girls better than boys.” By assigning responsibility for their failure to circumstances beyond their control, children thing the can remove the threat of being rejected by their parents and peers.
The final way in which children will avoid failure is by forcing themselves to succeed, and while that may sound like just the ticket for many driven parents, what it really means is that they are raising kids who will never know the joy of finding the areas for which they truly have a gift and can become real assets to the human race.
Kids who have an average aptitude for math, for instance, but feel compelled to bring a report card with at least a B+ in every subject, may grind away at the math and forego entering the statewide essay contest, even though they love writing and would have had a real chance to excel. Parenting kids though failure means letting them know that they don’t have to set the world on fire with everything they do.
Kids who have succeeded in avoiding failure have also succeeded in ensuring that they will never full engage in life. One of the biggest gifts parents can give to their children is the understanding that it’s okay to fail. Parenting kids to live through failure is a way of letting them know that, once they are out in the big world where failure is inevitable, they can simply accept their failure and move on, motivated to do better.
Children who have been allowed to fail without fearing for their emotional survival do not have to hide from their behavior; they can simply accept its consequences and make the changes necessary to achieve the desired result. And they also understand that nobody is perfect.
Parenting children to live with failure, in other words, is simply dusting off the old cliché, and instilling it in your kids with all the love you can muster: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”