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March 20, 2014
by Christie Hunter

Learning to Fail

March 20, 2014 04:55 by Christie Hunter  [About the Author]

As a parent, the desire to shield your child from failure is instinctive. 

It can be very tempting to paint the world as a worry-free, stress-free place: A fantasyland, where children will never experience disappointment, sadness, or esteem-rattling failure.

Of course, every parent hopes that their child will experience more successes than failures, but even more important than teaching children how to succeed is teaching them how to fail.

Positive and Negative Failure

Although we tend to always view failure in a negative light, there are actually two kinds of failure: positive failure and negative failure.

Positive failure occurs when we suffer a setback or disappointment, but are able to learn from the experience and positively alter our actions, increasing the chances of a future success.

Negative failure occurs when a stumble catalyzes further breakdown, compromising sense of self and discouraging any future attempt at achievement..

In short, positive failure begets growth; negative failure only feeds a self-destructive cycle of poor confidence.

Teaching your child to fail positively means letting them fall- letting them fully experience their failures, and then supporting them while they learn to get back up.

When a child is given the space to correct a problem on their own, they learn that they alone are responsible for their actions. At this point, they begin to assess how to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

Fearing Failure

Guarding your children’s emotions and shielding them from failure (“Don’t cry! You didn’t lose, the ref just made a bad call!”) does little to protect them in the long run.

In fact, it makes the concept of failure even scarier.

As children grow older, they’re more capable of reading your emotions and internalizing your fears for them: if they sense that you’re afraidof their failing, it’s likely they’ll be afraid of failing, too.

Children who fear failure are less likely to experiment with new activities from which they might elicit great joy.

Instead of trying a new sport or making a new friend, children who fear failure will often stick to the status quo, living in a world that is narrower thanks to their limited grasp of their own abilities.

Allowing a child to experience “failure light”- by being kind, supportive, and honest during adolescent blunders- allows children to develop the resiliency, responsibility, and grace necessary to try new things and excel in future ventures.

Letting children learn to fail on the playground means they won’t have to learn how to fail in college or the workplace.

As your child’s world expands, you’re no longer able to shield your child from every last disappointment:  teaching children to fail when the stakes aren’t as high is crucial to developing a child’s confidence and resiliency.

The Blame Game

Especially for very young children, cause and effect is a difficult concept.

When first experiencing failure, many children feel that the situation is “unfair”, or that the failure they are experiencing is out of their control.

This is rarely the case, and blaming someone else for your child’s failure (a coach or teacher, teammates, friends) for a situation that your child played a part in is something you should avoid at all costs.

When you avoid placing blame, you teach your child that he is ultimately in charge of his own destiny: while there may be obstacles on his journey, effort and determination beget success.

Blaming another person, on the other hand, can fuel narcissism or prevent your child from understanding that everyone fails sometimes, and that occasional failure should not determine a person’s worthiness or potential for future success.

Failing Positively: A Roadmap for Success

To teach your child to fail positively, specific suggestions are often more helpful than general encouragement.

Young children are often incapable of assessing a problem on their own- they lost a basketball game or failed a test, but aren’t quite sure of the exact actions that led to that failure.

In lieu of generic motivation or suggestions (“You’ll do better next time,” or “Try a little harder”), help your child brainstorm areas they could improve upon.

Express that you are sorry for their disappointment or sadness, but that you know they can rise to the challenge and excel in the future- and then move the conversation to methods for improvement.

For example, if a child has failed a spelling test, but states that he doesn’t don’t know why, you should broach the topic of study habits or mismanaged time.

“I’m sorry that you’re upset about your poor test score. Did you study? Studying is the only way to learn something new. I know that it might seem difficult or boring, but we can work together to make it more fun. Sometimes a little extra hard work is needed to get better at something. Let’s make flashcards together.”


“I know that you’re sad that you didn’t do well on your test. But you spend a lot of time playing video games, and I think that you’ve lied to me about whether or not your homework is done to get more playing time. If you want to avoid another bad grade, the only way to improve is to study. How about every night before you play video games, I’ll quiz you on your spelling words?”

Helping children understand that there is a way to move beyond failure helps diminish the fear of learning or trying new things.

New curriculum or activities can be difficult and frustrating for young children, but showing your child that everyone starts as a beginner can help inspire their determination: give your child examples of Olympic Athletes that started out learning how to swim or ride a bike, or brilliant Physicians who had to learn to read and add and subtract, also.

Even better, provide examples wherein your child has excelled beyond an adverse situation.

“Remember when you couldn’t ride a bike without training wheels? You were really wobbly at first, and it took us a lot of tries, but eventually, you learned! And look how easy it is for you now!”

Take a deep breath, stand back, and keep within arms-reach: your love and motivation are essential in their success.


About the Author

Christie Hunter

Christie Hunter is registered clinical counselor in British Columbia and co-founder of Theravive. She is a certified management accountant. She has a masters of arts in counseling psychology from Liberty University with specialty in marriage and family and a post-graduate specialty in trauma resolution. In 2007 she started Theravive with her husband in order to help make mental health care easily attainable and nonthreatening. She has a passion for gifted children and their education. You can reach Christie at 360-350-8627 or write her at christie - at -

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