Embracing Failure: How to Teach Your Kids to Fail the Right Way
One of the experiences I distinctly remember from grade school were the days we got tests back. As the teacher would walk around the room we would all try to catch a glimpse of her face as she carefully put the tests face down on our desks. Fear of failure was the overwhelming emotion we all felt as we quickly flipped the test over and glanced at the first page, looking just long enough to see the grade written in red marker. Of course, we didn’t want anyone else to see the grade, just in case it was bad. Bad, yes that was the operative word. If the grade was bad or low, then you were dumb or at the very least not smart enough to earn a good grade in that subject. Of all of the adjectives associated with failure, bad was the most profound. Even your parents knew that failure was bad.
But, then I got older and I learned that important, intelligent people like Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein, and athletes like John McEnroe (the tennis player who won the most matches in his career) failed, and this word failure took on a new meaning. It became something that could happen to successful, intelligent people. In recent years failure has taken on a more positive meaning. We now view failure as something we can learn from; it is considered a key path to healthy intellectual growth. In the words of the growth mindset icon Carol Dweck, learning how to cope with failure can lead to humility, adaptation and resiliency.
But I have to ask myself, if failure is so important, then what happens to those of us who fear failure? And what happens to our children, who are being homeschooled by us, obviously learning this same fear. Recent research into the concept of failure has shown that many of us who have a fear of failure also have what is known as a fixed mindset, meaning that we see our failures as indication that we just don’t have what it takes to succeed. The other view as identified by psychologist Carol Dweck is called a growth mindset and it sees failure as a chance for growth, where learning can be enhanced.
Two sides of the same coin, summed up by Winston Churchill in his quote, “Successes consists of going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Yes, according to this view failure is something very positive and we as the fixed mindset generation must not only accept but even perhaps embrace the new definition. Even the biological evidence supports the finding that having a growth mindset is beneficial. Measuring brain waves at the Moser Psychophysiology Lab, Hans Schroder has seen that those who focus on trying to figure out a mistake rather than fearfully avoiding it quickly improve on tasks that require accuracy. According to Schroder, glossing over mistakes or shying away from them can undermine someone’s growth potential.
As parents and homeschool teachers we can help our children view mistakes and failures in a new more positive light. Borrowing from a West Point Academy strategy, Richard Bard of the Kipp Foundation suggests using an Action Review Approach, and this includes asking the following question about a failure: What actually happened? What were 3 things that could have gone better? What were 3 things that you did well?
Helping kids identify and evaluate rather than fear failure will improve both their character and their way of viewing life.
Bonnie Gonzalez has 36 years of experience as a counselor and is passionate about helping families apply the latest research in their home schools. She teaches Introduction to Psychology for Aim Academy as well as the Secrets of Success mini-course series. Her upcoming Secrets of Success summer course helps students develop a growth mindset. You can learn more about the seven week course here.