Embracing Failure


This has been bothering me. At first, I wasn’t really sure what bothered me so much about it. It’s a slight attack on helicopter (or just protective) parenting and I don’t think I’m a helicopter parent. Furthermore, I actually agree with the “trophies for participating” line.

Mostly, I want to counter the notion that parents need to go back to a drill sergeant (threat of violence) style of parenting to get kids to grow up with coping skills and personal responsibility. I don’t think any personal style of parenting is necessarily right or wrong (this is a “judgment-free parenting zone”) but if we want to focus on something to help our children in the long term, maybe we should be focusing more on something many of the parenting books are not discussing enough: resiliency.

I do agree that we may need to focus our parenting a little away from over-protecting our children and constantly shielding them from pain. But, as a parent, that’s hard to do. Of course we don’t like seeing our children fail, because as adults, we aren’t so great at letting ourselves fail either. We know how much hurt and pain we endure when we lose or fail at something, whether it’s falling in love, trying something new or facing change. We know that it hurts to put yourself out there, risk it, then fall short. We know physical pain, shame, humiliation and embarrassment. So, we can barely fathom letting our sweet, innocent little children be subjected to pain, hurt, discomfort or grief.

But as adults, we also know that we know how boring it is to never try and never experience the joy of the journey or the exhilaration of triumph.

I’m worried that much of the parenting I’ve observed (and participating in myself) of late has shifted more into protecting our children rather than teaching them. I’d like to push back towards the teaching and growing philosophy of parenting – and help ourselves as adults as well.

Building resiliency

Certain events in my life and with my children in the past 6-12 months have had me looking deeply into human resiliency. I look at adults and how they deal with disappointment, loss or tragedy. Some people can stay strong and focus their energy on something outward (“compassionate choice” as explained by Dr. John Woodall in his discussions about resiliency after 12-14). Others fold inward, some use drugs, alcohol or other methods to numb themselves to the pain. Everyone has the same pain and grief, how some cope and some not?

I truly believe that (just like protecting yourself from disappointment) protecting your child from disappointment and hurt is not helping them with long-term resiliency and self-confidence. However, threatening to spank them when they make a mistake isn’t the answer either.

As a parent who believes in more of an open flow of communication and respect with my child rather than one sided “I AM RIGHT, I AM THE PARENT” response, I am hoping to prove that we can raise a generation of responsible, thoughtful, resilient, confident children without hitting them into complying.

Helping v. coddling v. hardening

My focus here is to build coping skills without “hardening” them.

I have a child that does not accept failure. He hates to lose, won’t ask for help, shuts down and isolates when he’s upset or fails at something and wants to avoid the responsibility for the mistake that led to the disappointment. Oh. My. God. He’s me. Well, he’s me before my (continuous) journey of self-awareness. Here’s the thing, I hate to lose. I hate to acknowledge my mistakes. When tragedy or difficulties arise, I want to sit in a corner and numb myself to the pain as well. But when you see your child using the same responses, you start thinking about what this is doing for him.My 6 year old – when something goes poorly, when two friends cut him out of playtime, when he cannot beat a certain level of Super Mario Galaxy, when he is tired of working on math problems because he got two wrong in a row..he wants to curl up, give up, cry, have me FIX IT!

And I want to fix it. I want to make his friends include him, I want to have him win at everything, I want him to never, ever, ever feel loss, pain or hurt. But then I realize that I don’t want him to play it safe either. I don’t want him to spend his life only doing the things he knows he could master. How boring would that be?

The truth of life is that “bad things happen and we as parents cannot stop them from happening”. What if the secret to strength and success is failure? (Credit: Teaching Kids to Fail-NYTimes) While I’d like to not create reckless situations with many opportunities for painful outcomes, I am now shifting towards helping my child learn from the lessons when they arise. I want my child to grow up into a resilient adult.

A week ago, a friend who is also on a journey of self exploration sent me this video about embracing vulnerability. Watching and listening to Brene Brown’s fu when much of what I wanted to change for me and my family came into focus.

And we perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, “Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect — make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.” That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s our job.Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we’ll end the problems I think that we see today. – Brene Brown

[Quick Note: I am now immersing myself in some of Brene Brown’s work, such as “Daring Greatly” and highly recommend it]

We want our kids to have the best of everything, do the best at everything, without the loss or failure because we, as a society, view people’s self-worth as what they’ve accomplished, not who they are.
Why do we have to perpetuate this false notion of self-worth? Why can’t we be the generation of parents who want the “best” for our children in terms of the “best” self-worth for them, not trophies, baubles, video games, clothes, school reputations, etc.?

I love this picture from Dr. John Woodall’s page because it gets straight to the point that broken and healed is even more beautiful than “perfect”:

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

The hardest thing as a parent is to teach your child to value themselves, to love the person that they are when society is telling them that they are not cool enough, smart enough, attractive enough. It’s tough to be a teenager if you are not a straight, acne-free, muscular, star athlete teenager driving a Jeep Wrangler because you are “less than” cool.

Our children are growing up in this world where their self-worth and resiliency will be constantly challenged, so I think we need to help them learn now.
I’m not saying it’s easy, watching your child fail at something SUCKS. Big Time. But here are some thoughts from the experts – probably poorly summarized by me, so check out the full article here:

  • Confidence. Build confidence – but not false confidence. Praise your child for qualities such as fairness, integrity, persistence instead of “you’re such a good boy.”
  • Competence. Help develop a child’s competence – empower them to make their own decisions, help them focus on their strengths
  • Connection. Develop ties with family and the surrounding community to help a child with a sense of belonging and security
  • Character. Help your child see how a caring attitude can help them grow as a person.
  • Contribution. Help your child see that they are a part of something – that the world is a better place because they are in it.
  • Coping. Help develop positive coping responses.
  • Control. Help your child see that many outcomes can be controlled by his/her decisions or responses.

Finally….Be your child’s role model

The # 1 thing, I think, is for the parent should be a role model for this brave, accepting vulnerability, self-confident, resilient person you want to raise. Just by looking at the list above, we can learn something as parents to be this role model. As a parent, should see how you are handling your own disappointments. How often do you say “I don’t know” or “I need help” without feeling shame?

Are you willing to embrace your own failures or acknowledge your short-comings? Or do you react with the “I suck!” mentality?

How do you handle stress?

Do you let your child see that you can accept your own mistakes?

And also continue to put yourself back out there?

That’s what I’m working on first, me.

Additional resources:
Please check out this book: Building Resiliency in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings by Kenneth Ginsburg
And for further writings on “letting your kids fail (i.e. discover natural consequences) see this article and this one too.



8 thoughts on “Embracing Failure

  1. This is great! My job involves working with military kids and helping them develop resiliency is the primary focus of our organization. We want them to be able to handle any difficulties they face, whether their parent deploys or they have to move across country or overseas. Another great resource is the book Building Resilience in Children and Teens by Kenneth Ginsburg. He’s the one who came up with the seven C’s of resilience. He does a lot of speaking on this subject so you can probably find him on youtube as well.


    1. Thank you Lisa! Actually, this whole thought process started over a dinner with a friend who attended some of Ginsburg’s lectures. I did give him some credit at the bottom of the post – maybe I should have made it more pronounced since he really is fabulous! I’m glad you liked the post!


  2. Thank you for sharing this very informative post. I learned so much from it. We may not be able to raise them as perfect individuals but at least we are doing our best to raise them the best way we could. Thank you so much for sharing these tips!


  3. your 6yo is a lot like mine…and in turn a lot like me. i don’t like losing and as a child i had a tendency to say “well i can’t do this to my level of perfection, therefore i can’t do it at all”. my son is like that. but…i act like my dad. i don’t try to fix it. i encourage him, firmly, that he can do it, that it might be hard but he will succeed. we’ve had some success….alas i know for him to embrace this part of his personality will take time and maturity.


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