Why it’s okay for children to fail – and how as parents we can encourage them to try again

The importance of creating a healthy mindset in your child when they fail in life  

Little girl with a burnt cake
Failing isn’t always a bad thing, and letting your kids know that is a good start in life

There was once a child who did not utter a word until he was four years old, as a result his teachers were concerned that he was mentally delayed. It took until he was nine years old for him speak with ease. His poor behaviour at school earned him a bad reputation and at age 16 he failed his entrance exam to college. After eventually graduating at the age of 21 he struggled to find work. As an adult, he was famously quoted saying, “I have tried 99 times and have failed, but on the 100th time came success.” This man was Albert Einstein. 

Failure is a part of the human condition. Whether it was not making it onto the football team, flunking an exam or, like JK Rowling, having your first novel rejected by 12 publishers, heart sinking disappointment has touched us all.

Although it is simply a part of life, for young people the negative emotions associated with failing can feel even more daunting as they are experiencing them for the first time. So, what can we as parents do to reframe their pain into a learning experience and help them to build a healthy amount of resilience? 

Clinical Psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia, Dr. Daniela Salazar said, “Disappointment is a part of life. Even though it can cause high anxiety and discomfort, it can also give us great strength in dealing with future situations.” 

Failure in essence is not always bad. It is a part of the process we all took as babies learning to walk – falling down over and over again. “It is important that as adults we are able to frame failure as part of development,” explains Jackie Greenwood, Head of Counselling at Fairgreen International School. “Sometimes the language surrounding the situation can have more impact than experience itself. It is important that as adults we’re conscious of the way we speak to children about challenges, we want them to see it as being a part of their learning experience,” said Greenwood. 

Research by Dr Carol Dweck in 1998 found that children have one of two attitudes when approaching failure, and she named them the fixed and the growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset avoid challenges to protect against any potential negative emotions that may arise from being unsuccessful. Children with a growth mindset, on the other hand, are ready to embrace challenges knowing that they will expand their skills regardless of the outcome. This is why at Fairgreen International School they emphasise resilience using the acronym ‘First Attempt In Learning’. 

It’s also why Aakanksha Tangri,  Founder of Re:Set (an online resource about parenting, mental health and wellbeing) recommends that parents “be patient and provide kids with the space to try again.” She also advises parents to carefully consider their language “thinking about how they wanted their parents to react to their own childhood failures.” 

Little boy by goal on football match
Getty Images

Seeing our children upset hurts, but as a parent, part of our role is helping them to find the lesson in their suffering. Jacqueline McGarva from Cascade Learning Centre, a home-schooling and tutoring centre in JLT that helps parents to support their child’s academic and emotional development. “Failure can be a great teacher so long as children have been given the right skills,” she said. “Parents shouldn’t fall into the trap of doing everything for their children (from age seven upwards), but should aim to steer them in the right direction and let them learn. For example, if they have swimming lessons the next day, remind them to pack their bag the night before. If they forget to bring their swimming costume, don’t rush to bring it in for them. Chances are, sitting out this time is going to teach them a valuable lesson in preparation.” 

“We need to focus on what is working rather than what is not…”

Dr Salazar agrees, “we can’t protect our children from every difficulty they might encounter. The irony of failure is that feeling disappointed is actually beneficial for children. As humans we get a feeling of self-worth from overcoming difficulties and being able to solve problems on our own. Take the time to sit with your child and talk through their feelings while identifying ways they can improve for next time. That being said you should make a call on each case. “If the failing will cause a huge humiliation to your child, such as forgetting to dress up for a Halloween party, then it’s a good idea to help out,” said Dr Salazar.

When it comes to teens, they may feel anxious about achieving enough. “In recent years there has been an incremental pressure to succeed and to find a way to stand out from the crowd. But it has become an unreachable goal for our teens to excel at everything,” says Dr Salazar. Social media is putting further demands on children. As a School Counsellor, Greenwood sees the digital pressure her secondary school pupils find themselves under. “Young people see aspirational posts and seek things that are out of reach because what they’re seeing isn’t real.”

So, what can we, as parents, do to support them? “The counter to these external pressures is to raise children with more optimism,” said Greenwood, after sitting with each pupil in order to form a supportive relationship. “We, as parents and educators, need to focus on what is working rather than what is not.”

It is important to teach our children that things don’t always go as planned and, although disappointing, we can sometimes be led onto much greater things. Re:Set founder, Tangri said, “failure helps you realise your strengths and can nudge you towards cementing them.” This is where the resilience of the growth mindset comes in handy. Dr Salazar advises that parents model this strength to adversity, “we need to be the best role models we can for our kids. Don’t show disappointment if you are not able to accomplish something the first time around.” Use your experiences to educate your child on seeing the positives and moving forward to find their passions.

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a news reporter before she landed a talk show, while Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for a lack of imagination. So, if words aren’t their forte but they excel in maths, focus on what works. You may just be encouraging the next Einstein along their path to success.  

Read our expert tips on getting your child in the habit of reading.

%d bloggers like this: