Creative Child

Parenting: Teaching Success Through Failure

by Deborah Song

High monkey bars are disappearing from playgrounds everywhere. It’s the telltale metaphor that reveals a zeitgeist sweeping the nation: we’ve become obsessed with trying to engineer failure out of our children’s lives. By avoiding high pitfalls, however, we have also taken the joys out of allowing our children to climb high, explains Megan McArdle in “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success.”


Watching our children fail is painful, though probably more painful for us than it is for them. One way we can help our children deal with failure better is by changing the way they (and we) view failure - not as something gone wrong, but as the result and precursor to something good. Failure is often times the consequence of trying something new, and failure is also the only way to truly learn.

Here are some tips to encourage your child to utilize mistakes as learning opportunities. 

  1. Language matters. Instead of praising your child with comments like, “Good job! You’re so smart,” praise their effort instead by saying, “Good job for trying!” What may seem like a small tweak in language has actually proven to elicit profound results. In an experiment conducted by an expert in motivational psychology, children were given a simple cognitive task. After completion, half were told, “Wow! You did really well – you must be very smart!” and the other half, “Wow! You did really well – you must have worked really hard!” When they were offered a follow-up test that had an easy and hard option, the students who had been praised for their effort were more willing to embrace the more challenging test. This fork in the road in mindset eventually led to a divide in performance. In the third test, the kids who had embraced the difficult problems showed improvement, while the kids who chose the task they could do well actually performed worse. 
  1. Reward the effort, not the outcome. Celebrate with ice cream when your child scores a goal, but then also celebrate with ice cream and toppings when he misses because he showed gumption and the willingness to go for it! This type of reward system can apply to just about anything, whether it’s a sticker chart or even an enthusiastic high-five.

More tips for teaching success through failure on page 2... 

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