By Kimberly Feltes Taylor and Eric Braun, coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes
When you suggest that your child or student try something new, do they typically respond in one of the following ways?
- I won’t be good at that.
- It sounds too stressful.
- That seems really hard.
- I’d never make the team.
- I’ll just embarrass myself.
- No way!
If you’re suggesting that the kid start training to climb Mount Everest or take up torch juggling, the hesitation is probably warranted. But if you’re suggesting, for example, that your child try out for the school play—especially when you know that she loves theater—then the hesitation might indicate a fear of failure.
When Kids Fear Failure
The prospect of failing at something can be scary for anyone. Kids can get the message, through social media, popular culture, and—if we’re honest—school culture, that messing up, doing poorly at something, or being unattractive makes them losers. Parents, teachers, and other adults may inadvertently send the message that their affection or approval is tied to performance by putting too much emphasis on achievements like grades or athletic success. No wonder the thought of coming up short is so daunting to so many kids!
Kids might express their fear of failure in a number of ways:
- They might flat out refuse to try things, like the child who won’t try out for the school play. If they don’t try it, they can’t fail at it.
- They might avoid activities they are involved in by forgetting dates, forgetting equipment or materials, or feigning illness or injury.
- Some kids make excuses: “The umpire was unfair.” “The teacher didn’t do a good job of teaching that.” Or the classic, “The sun was in my eyes.” In other words, the failure was not their fault.
- Another kind of excuse is when kids deliberately tank at the assignment or task. They can say they didn’t care, so they didn’t try, and therefore they didn’t really fail.
- Many kids react to their fear of failure by excelling at all costs. They drive themselves relentlessly, seeking success for the sake of success rather than any genuine pleasure or satisfaction they may get from accomplishing something. This can sap the fun from activities—and amp up the anxiety.
Fortunately, with just a few conversations, we can help our kids face—and overcome—their fear of failure. That’s important because fear of failure not only holds them back from reaching goals and experiencing new things, but it also holds them back from one of the most important experiences of all . . .
. . . wait for it . . .
. . . you guessed it . . .
. . . it’s failure.
When we screw up, make mistakes, or come up short, and even when we fall flat on our faces, we learn important lessons about how to do better next time: figure out what didn’t work and try to fix it. We also learn patience, problem-solving, and perseverance. We learn to manage emotions like frustration, disappointment, and embarrassment. And we learn humility. (Couldn’t the world use more of that?) In other words, when we come up short, we come up big.
All that goes double for kids and teens, who are still in the early stages of developing life skills and self-regulation. Failures and mistakes help them grow up.
Here are a few ways you can help the young people in your life develop the courage to fail.
Talk Through Fears
First, ask your child to explain what his concerns are. “Why don’t you think you’d be good at it?” Or “What’s making you worry about it?” Reassure your child that the fear or concern isn’t uncommon, and that it is okay: “New situations are nerve-racking for a lot of people.” Or, “You’re right, school is stressful.” Or, “I agree, that would be embarrassing.”
Help your child understand that it’s okay to make mistakes. Talk about the benefits of trying and failing and trying again. Help them realize that, with practice, they can improve at the task or skill. Or they can become more comfortable with a new situation. Or they can learn from trying and become stronger and smarter.
If this seems hard for kids to grasp, it might help to tell a story from when you were close to their age. Remember that time you struck out in a big spot in the big game . . . and you cried in front of everyone? It probably seemed humiliating at the time, but you got over it. Maybe you worked harder at batting and improved. Or maybe you decided that baseball wasn’t your sport, and you gave it up for a different one. That’s okay too. The point is you learned, the mistake didn’t ruin your life, and you grew from it. It was worth it to try.
Talk Through Outcomes
What might happen if kids try the new thing or the hard thing? Go over all the possible outcomes. Include how the child might feel if it happens and how she might handle it. In the abstract, the idea of failing can seem overwhelming—this huge black cloud ready to drop buckets of rain on you. But when you make the various ways one can fail more concrete with specifics, they might not seem so scary. Here are some examples for the fear of trying out for the school play:
- You trip going up the stairs to the stage. You might be distracted and embarrassed. It might feel like people are judging you. What can you do? Take a deep breath. Look up, smile, and wave at the director. Act like it was no big deal. And keep walking to the stage. Do your audition just the way you practiced, and you’ll appear confident and comfortable. Recovering from that trip might actually end up making you look like a cool customer.
- You flub a line at the beginning of your audition. This might feel devastating at first. You might freeze, thinking you’ve ruined your audition. What can you do? Remember that it was only one line—it’s not the end of the audition. Stay in character and keep acting out your part. If the flub really threw you off, apologize and say you’re going to start over.
- You say your lines in a monotone voice that suggests you have absolutely no acting skills. This can feel deflating. It probably means you won’t make the play. What can you do? Chalk it up to experience. You tried. You worked hard to learn the lines, and you went out and did something that was scary for you. Congratulations! That shows courage, and you can feel good about that. And now you don’t have to regret that you didn’t try.
- Other actors are obviously much better than you. Like the not-so-awesome audition in the previous bullet, this is a downer. Again, you’re not likely to get a part. But here, too, you can feel good about giving it a shot. If you try again, you’ll be that much better because of the experience. If you don’t, you at least know you have the courage to try something hard.
Make sure to go over the WORST-CASE SCENARIO:
- You pee your pants in the middle of your audition. First of all, this is highly unlikely. But let’s say it happens. If it does, there’s no doubt it’s going to feel embarrassing. It’s going to be a big, fat, bummer. What can you do? Excuse yourself from the stage. Quickly and discreetly get cleaned up and go home to change. Some kids might make fun of you if they saw it. But just like pretty much every embarrassing moment that’s ever happened to anyone ever, most people will forget it soon. The thing is, people are focused on their own lives. Sometimes it feels like everyone is looking at you or judging you all the time, but in reality most of us are too busy worrying about ourselves.
You might even have fun making up absurd worst-case scenarios with your child and laughing about them. This can help ease the tension and reinforce that these scenarios are very unlikely to happen.
While you’re at it, talk about some positive outcomes too. You do great and get a good part. You make a new friend in theater. You have a super-fun time and decide to do more plays. None of these can happen if the child doesn’t take a chance. Risking failure is the only way to reap rewards.
For all the scenarios, consider role playing with children (don’t have them actually pee their pants!). Doing so will help make these potential failures seem less scary. It will also give them practice for how to react if challenges do come up. If children do trip, they won’t go into panic mode, trying to remember what to do.
If we’re going to talk the talk, we have to walk the walk. Let your child know about good risks you have taken or—especially—are taking. Let them know what your worries were, and explain why you did it anyway. These don’t have to be big challenges. Maybe you wanted to try yoga but were embarrassed to take a class because everyone else in the class has been doing it forever. But it was important to you, so you went for it, even though you were nervous. It might seem like a small thing to an adult—we’ve dealt with countless little fears like this in our lives—but it’s a meaningful accomplishment, and it will resonate with a nervous child.
Seek out a new challenge for yourself. Let your kid know why it’s hard, what you fear might happen, and why you’re going to do it anyway. Let them watch you go through it. And if you make a mistake, or if you fail, or even if you just don’t do as well as you wanted to, figure out what you got out of the process and talk about it with your child. There’s always something good that comes from trying things.
Be honest with yourself: Are you putting too much emphasis on grades? Could a kid possibly get the message that your love or approval is dependent on, say, her success in music? Surely none of us means to send that message, but actions speak louder than words. Do you celebrate or praise kids who get great report cards—and less so other kids? Do you tie rewards to accomplishments? When your children have a bad game or test, do you nitpick their performance or double down on practice time? Or do you comfort them and praise their effort?
Kids need our unconditional love and approval. That means making room for failure with our words and our actions. Be kind to kids when they fall short. That’s when they need that love and support most. Remember to praise effort, not results.
It’s also important to teach kids to be kind to themselves. As the saying goes, nobody is perfect. It’s important for kids to challenge themselves and test their limits and take risks. And it’s important to learn to be okay with coming up short. Teach them the fine art of going for greatness while allowing for goodness.
Kimberly Feltes Taylor has written over 15 books for young people, including the popular Yolanda series of advice books, which provide tips for dealing with peer pressure, family issues, friendship problems, money management, and workplace dilemmas. Kim has also written dozens of classroom magazine articles. She lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
Eric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.
Kimberly and Eric are coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes
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