Let Your Kids Fail

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An interview with Dr. Avril P. Beckford

The other day my 5 year-old asked me to draw a horse. I hesitated. Drawing is not a strength of mine, and I admitted it. He said, “That’s okay mama. Just do your personal best.” Thanks, son. I could learn a thing or two from you. Young school-aged children are getting slammed with all sorts of real and perceived expectations from parents, teachers and peers. We parents watch our kids’ attitudes forming, observe what comes easy to them — and what doesn’t. How can we guide our kids to keep trying without shutting down because they don’t do something “right,” or they don’t understand something immediately? What do we do when we see them repeatedly struggling or “failing” at an endeavor? Dr. Avril P. Beckford, pediatrician and author of Allow Your Children to Fail if you Want Them to Succeed, advises us to embrace the beauty of imperfection. (PS – I did do my personal best, and the horse was a dead ringer — for a dog.) — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, The Mother Company

Why do children freak-out when they perceive themselves as failing?

I think children innately want to please. They want to please their parents in particular, as well as people in authority. Some children are hard on themselves from a personality point of view, but more than that, I think it’s a learned response from watching the body language, the facial expressions, but also the verbal feedback from their parents when they do make mistakes. When they get the feedback, subtle, or unsubtle that they failed, it makes them anxious. They feel they’ve disappointed their parents.

How do children benefit from learning to be imperfect, or “failing” well?

The children who do not receive negative feedback but are encouraged to go on when they make mistakes or fail to accomplish what they set-out to do are the children who are not afraid to challenge themselves, stretch themselves, explore, take risks, and venture outside of their comfort zone. For example, little ones learning to ride a bike or play a game, or kick a ball tend to be willing to try and fail, and try again. But, if they’ve learned that making a mistake is going to disappoint, they’ll be more reluctant to venture.

What can parents do to help?

There are two aspects to this answer.

First, parents need to be good role models and set an example. Parents should show their kids they aren’t afraid to try something, and if it doesn’t work out, they can react with a sense of humor and be lighthearted about it. So when we make a mistake we can say things in front of our children like, “Oh well, looks like Mom made a mistake. Let’s see what I can do to make it better.” As children grow up with that kind of example and verbalization, they realize that making mistakes is a normal part of life and that owning a mistake and trying to figure out how to do it right can make us grow stronger.

Secondly, we should praise children for trying again, and not just giving up. If they try something, and it doesn’t work out, we can say, “Looks like it didn’t work out this time. I know you have the courage to try again, because you’re full of courage.” Trying and trying again builds resilience and character. It also fosters a child who is secure in their sense of self. This is because they know their strengths, and their own relative weaknesses (which we all have.) This kind of self-knowledge encourages them to keep working to maximize their strengths and overcome their relative weaknesses. In life, whether one is in a profession or not — those are the kinds of qualities that enable a child and a grown-up to not only cope, but to excel. I think that’s very important because what I’m talking about is the beginning of their emotional intelligence. It is our emotional intelligence that ultimately determines whether we use our gifts and challenges wisely, and moreover whether whether we succeed in life.

By taking your advice, can parents help form their child’s character?

Yes, but not alone. Increasingly, our world is making it quite difficult to raise children. There are exterior pressures like media, television, community or loss of community. So I believe that partnering with educators and our community is key. If we are connecting with each other as parents, talking about our parenting struggles and goals as a community, we are helping our children make good choices. For example, if you have a child that does not take risks, or a child that is overbold and takes too many, sit down with her teacher. Tell the teacher what you’re struggling with, and have him partner with you in helping your child grow emotionally.

So if our children are struggling with something – a sport, a craft, reading, etc – and they want to give-up, what’s a parent to do?

I always like to remind parents of the story about Thomas Edison. He tried to unsuccessfully to get the light bulb to work over 2,000 times.

There are four steps I recommend parents follow:

Acknowledge the feelings. Validate their emotional reaction. So a parent can say, “I understand you must be feeling frustrated right now. It’s okay to feel that way.” This way a child doesn’t feel bad about what they’re feeling, and learns to acknowledge and respect their feelings. Being in touch with our feelings is the very beginning of the development of emotional intelligence.

Know the child. How we express things to one child might be very different to another. Some might be more sensitive, others might be more strong-willed. As a mom or dad, being attuned to who your little one is helps you to respond with the right tone, body language, and you’ll know how far to go.

Empower the child. Don’t fix it for them, because then you’re undermining their confidence. If you fix it for them, you’re sending them the message that you didn’t think they could do it for themselves. You can empower the child with a statement like, “How would you like to handle this before you try again? Perhaps you could try this? Or that? Let’s see how you can solve this problem.”

Encourage the child. Be the constant source of encouragement and strength without pressure. So we don’t want to overpraise or give false statements of praise. For example, if a child is struggling at school, making comments like, “You are so smart,” is unhelpful, because that child knows that she struggles more than her peers. That inadvertently puts more pressure on kids. They might think, “Oh my gosh, my mom thinks I’m so smart, and I’m not.” So, be real, be valid, be positive and encouraging, but with no pressure. A parent could say, “I’m so proud of you that you are doing your best and trying your hardest. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. But the important thing is to keep trying and have that wonderful attitude that I see in you because everyone learns in a different way, and I love you just the way you are.” It’s all about encouraging and praising their effort.

If parents have followed your four steps, and their child continues to struggle and doesn’t want to continue with, for example, dance class or karate anymore, should a parent allow the child to quit, or encourage to carry on?

First, I think it’s really important the child doesn’t become overscheduled, because that can lead to burn-out. As a rough guideline, I recommend one extracurricular activity per season. I think the goal should be to try different things so they know what they enjoy. This is important, because by taking a class or participating in a sport that excites them, they can find their passion to succeed at something they’re really good at. Have the conversation with them early about choices for the season. Suggest watching a little bit to figure out what they’d like to try. But, let them know that once we commit, for this particular season or these certain number of classes, we have paid the money, we have a coach or a teacher, and you’d be letting down the team and class, if you drop-out. So we expect you to see out the season or class series. Of course, there are rare circumstances when we might let the child drop-out. But what we want to model for our kids is that making a commitment means keeping it.

If at the end of the season or class, your child does not want to reenroll, then see it as an opportunity to try something new to find that extracurricular activity that ignites their passion.

Is the need to please parents and authority figures by not “failing” a phase or possibly a lifelong struggle?

I think it’s actually both. I think there are different seasons of life where learning patterns are critical. I think that childhood is a very important time in terms of formation of character, self-esteem, and characteristics like being willing to take risks and exploring. At the same time, I believe that there’s an opportunity for lifelong growth. People that are truly successful are those who are constantly able to remain introspective, and able to do a fair self-evaluation accepting ownership of the mistakes they make. This is the core and essence of successful people. While I think the foundation is laid down in childhood, I think the ability to make a mistake, own a mistake, and repair the mistake is something we are never too old to do. It is the hallmark of real character and resiliency.

Dr. Avril P. Beckford is a well-known pediatrician practicing in Atlanta, Georgia. She is actively involved in leadership with the National and Georgia Chapter of the Academy of Pediatrics. She authored a book on parenting called Allow Your Children to Fail if You Want them To Succeed, as well as two children’s books. She is the mother of two boys.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show.” We want to be a parenting tool….For you!

Posted in: Expert Advice