The Fear of Failure
It may be that the most important mastery we achieve early on is not the mastery of a particular skill or particular piece of knowledge, but rather the mastery of the patience and persistence that learning requires, along with the ability to expect and accept mistakes and the feelings of disappointment they may bring.
– Fred Rogers in Life’s Journeys According to Fred Rogers
“Mama, I didn’t have such a good day yesterday,” E says as he puts on his clothes to prepare for another day of school. “I cut out the tree when I should have colored it first.” Now with tears welling up in his eyes, he continues, “And I laughed while I was waiting in line and the teacher said the next time I did it, he would send a note home to you. Will you be really mad if he sends a note home?”
School requires the learning of rules and expectations. At some point, it will challenge every child. From a failing test to talking in class when they should be listening, children will have moments of feeling a sense of failure. It becomes a challenge as a parent when you are not in the situation and must rely on your child to relay the details of a circumstance. There will be times when you feel a teacher or administrator has acted unjustly toward your child. There will be times when you know for certain that your child was in the wrong, or that your child is not telling you the full truth about what happened at school. In addition, children who are not able to do the work of school – maybe they are struggling with reading or math – will also invariably struggle with motivation. Who wants to get out of bed each morning and go to school when they will be met with challenges that feel insurmountable?
In order to avoid failure, children may throw frustration tantrums or act like clowns to mask their fears. They may procrastinate or not do their work at all. They may attempt to fade away in a classroom and avoid engagement. Children may want to get everything perfect the first time. They may have a strong sense of competition with their peers. They may feel they are faced with unreasonable expectations.[i] Or they could simply have particular difficulties with a subject area and not know how to proceed.
Ironically, in a place that is meant to support growth and learning, often the message schools send out to children is that they must be doing “A” level work. Even when teachers emphasize that mistakes are okay, our culture and the culture of school can reinforce the pressure of getting it right every time. When is there an opportunity for mistakes to occur? How do children learn to take healthy risks? How do they learn to fail so that they can have the major revelations that only come from moving from confusion and misunderstanding to full and deep understanding? What can you do to support their school success?
Coaching and supporting your child about responding to mistakes or less than stellar performances can offer invaluable practice in seizing the learning opportunity. Through that practice, she will build the resiliency to deal with the greater life challenges down the road.
The biggest, most important thing you can do is to consistently build and reinforce a trusting connection between you and your children. With full school days and extracurricular activities, your time together becomes very limited. When you do have time with your child, look for opportunities to really connect with her. Sit at her level or even below her level to help her feel more in control since teachers often tower over their students most of the day. Listen or offer to read a story while having an after school snack. Don’t push hard on questions related to what happened at school but instead show your child that you are open to listening when they are ready to talk. Spend time with your child in which you turn off your cell phone and allow him to engage you in conversation or play. Then when challenging situations arise at school, he will be more willing to tell you what is going on and allow you to help.
In schools, building trusting relationships between teachers and students, among students and among other staff in the school community is the path toward developing the confidence necessary to take healthy risks and sometimes fail in order to achieve. Assume that everyone – your child, his teacher, the principal – has the best intentions. Begin from a place of trust instead of approaching teachers as if they must prove to you they are worthy of your child’s respect. When you face problems such as when your child tells you a story in which it sounds as if the teacher acted unfairly, you can respond in a way that supports your trust in your child and also your trust in the best intentions of the teacher. “I hear that you were very upset when the teacher said he was giving you a warning. It takes time and lots of practice to learn the rules and routines of school. I understand that you are learning and he does too. That’s why he did not take action but just helped you remember through his warning, what you are supposed to be doing while you line up.”
Have and show confidence in all children’s abilities to learn. He may not understand a math equation that you are grappling to remember as you attempt to support his homework efforts. Reassure him that it is completely normal to struggle when learning something new. You may even help by setting small goals to recognize as he achieves them. “You finished the first step. Great! That will naturally lead into the second step.” Take breaks. Get some fresh air. Have a snack or set a timer. Use concrete learning materials like an abacus or counting bears, tangible representations of what he is trying to learn that he can return to over and again (teacher supply stores are great for these kinds of manipulatives). Help him persist in a way that is tolerable – perhaps, even enjoyable – to help him see that he has the ability to get through even the most difficult challenges.
Promote an “I can” belief. If your child is uttering in frustration, “I can’t.” Be sure and respond with a confident, “I know you can. It just may take more time and I’ll help.” “If you are willing to spend the time, almost anyone can learn anything,” relays veteran high school English teacher Linda Smith.
Point out your own mistakes. Remember being a child and assuming all adults were perfect and knew everything even though you watched them make mistakes? Pointing out your own mistakes to your child will not encourage him to make mistakes. However, it will encourage him to be more self-forgiving when he makes them. It will teach him that mistakes are made by everyone. It will teach him that they are okay and even a necessary part of life.
Check your own responses. If you are getting emotional – angry, frustrated, upset – by your child’s poor choice or lack of progress, take a step back. Ask yourself why. Are you disappointed in your child and know they can do better? Are you worried it’s a reflection of your parenting? Are you concerned about what teachers or friends might think about your child or your family? Understanding the roots of your own frustration will help you deal with your emotion to work through your own disappointment. Working toward a constructive response with your child may help you feel better about the situation and about how your child is able to make amends.
Offer life lines. Practice asking for help. “The sign of a smart person is knowing how and when to ask for help,” I often say to E. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength and self-awareness. Point out friends at school who might be some assistance to your daughter when she struggles with her homework. Encourage her to talk with the teacher after class and ask for some pointers on study skills. Point out Grandpa’s excellent mathematical abilities and get him involved. It’s comforting for a child to know that there are multiple people who will support him when she needs it.
Teach your children that what matters is not the mistake itself but how they respond to it. Rarely is there only one chance to do something. If your child causes harm, help them think through ways to repair that harm. Do a kindness for the person affected. Write a heart-felt note. Contribute your energies to a service. Ask for a second chance. Ask for forgiveness. If he gets a poor grade on an assignment, tell him to ask his teacher for extra help. Guiding your child in thinking about how to make a situation better through their thoughtful action not only helps them make reparation but teaches them how to constructively respond in a way that nurtures and strengthens relationships and promotes learning. If a child has the opportunity to make reparation, regret, guilt or grudges do not factor into their feelings. Instead, they take control by contributing to the healing in whatever form it may take.
School offers children invaluable practice tests for the tests of life. Mothers and fathers have made plenty of their own mistakes. But often what they have learned helped them later in life. It is not the failure itself that is critical but our response to failure that determines whether a person has the persistence of character to achieve greatness.
Excellent children’s books on making mistakes:
Hobbie, H. (2004). The New Friend (Toot and Puddle). Boston, MA: Little, Brown Books for Readers.
Pett, M. & Rubenstein, G. (2011). The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.
Viorst, J. (1972). Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. New York
[i] Albert, L. (2003). Cooperative discipline. Circle Pines, MN: AGS Publishing.
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