The Benefits of Failure
How kids' epic fails can lead to success. Plus, wise words from JK Rowling
Parents want only the best for their kids, so when children suffer disappointments, we feel their pain. Whether it’s not making a team, losing a school election, getting rejected by a top college choice or not receiving an invite to the coolest party, children can be devastated by perceived failures. It would seem less painful for the whole family to try tosidestep these occasional blows, but experts insist that experiencing failure provides important life lessons and creates resiliency necessary to developing a child’s character.
Just ask Carol Rooney, Berwyn, PA mom to Tori, now 18. Tori has played basketball since 3rd grade and was a member of both a travel team and her middle school team. “When she was trying out for the high school basketball team, she was aware that it was going to be very competitive,” recalls Rooney. “She did not make the team. It was devastating to her. As a parent, you live so vicariously through your kids, and that was probably one of the worst days of her life.”
Yet Rooney recognized that Tori learned many important lessons through the process. “First and foremost, it takes hard work, and she did not put in the work that she probably should have to get herself ready,” Rooney says. “She also realized that sometimes life is not fair. I don’t know if she should have made the team or not, but deep down in her heart she believed she deserved to. No matter what you think or expect, sometimes it just doesn’t go your way and you have to pick up the pieces and move on.”
How to “move on” from failure
“Life is comprised of successes and disappointments, and it’s important that children know how to face disappointments, accept them and learn from them,” says Jean Hedrich, director of guidance at Mt. Pleasant High School in Brandywine, DE.
Hedrich believes that the key to raising resilient children is to unconditionally love them for who they are, not what they achieve. “If kids understand that their personal worth is not linked to their success, that’s a really big thing,” she says. “Whether they succeed or fail, they are still loved.”
“You can’t buffer your child’s world forever,” says Richard Selznick, PhD, director of Voorhees, NJ’s Cooper Learning Center, Department of Pediatrics, Cooper University Healthcare. “If we shield kids from experiencing any disappointment, how will they cope when they face bigger disappointments? It’s a misguided approach.”
Selznick urges parents to be straightforward in discussing possible setbacks before they strike. Remind your child how much you respect his efforts and the risk he took in reaching toward his goal in the first place. “The fact that you’re going for it and giving it a shot is the most important thing,” he says. “But know that it may not go your way.”
“Just giving time to kids, letting them talk it out, is a great thing,” Hedrick says. “Without even saying anything, by spending time with them you’re already telling them how much they are worth to you.”
The life lessons of failure
JK Rowling speaking about the "Fringe Benefits of Failure" at Harvard University's 2011 commencement
“We always think of failure as a bad thing, but sometimes it’s when we fail that we learn the most,” insists Hedrich. “That’s when our lives and our characters develop.”
Once some time has passed and the initial sting has eased, Selznick suggests that parents find an appropriate time to talk about what happened. Ask your child if given the chance, would she do anything differently this time. It’s a time to reflect on possible reasons for the outcome — were you mean to the child having the party? Did you study as much as you should have? Did you put your election posters out right away?
Equally important is the chance to reflect on the fact that however disappointed, life goes on and new opportunities present themselves. Your child survived despite the pain and will be able to better handle the next disappointment.
When her daughter was crushed, Rooney felt that her own role was to provide a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen and an understanding of Tori’s disappointment. They reached out to the coach to get a better understanding of why Tori didn’t make the team and what she might work on to try again next year.
“She learned that she could survive, and she’s stronger now that she experienced that,” says Rooney.
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.