helping kids cope with failure

Me and failure are pretty well acquainted.

When I was nine, I forgot my lines on stage during a primary school production where my role was “bubonic plague”.  Not wanting to stop the show, I improvised my lines. For about ten minutes.

It was a memorable show, for all the wrong reasons. I had to be dragged off stage by a rat.

For Flea, though, life’s been a little different.

Like many kids of her generation, she’s programmed to succeed. She goes to a great school, lives in a nice house. When someone has a party, she’s invited. If there’s a school production, she gets a part. She’s coached and supported through life’s challenges, because that’s what parents do, right?

And before you know it, you’ve raised an 11-year-old with a charmed life.

The thing about a charmed life (as anyone who’s watched Zoolander 2 will know) is that a good thing only lasts so long. Sooner or later your child is going to bump face first into failure.

So what do you do?

Flea’s recently experienced one of her first big failures. The sort that comes with a very big F. Although she’s aced most of her exams this year, she’s flunked one particular subject. Badly. It’s sort of heartbreaking to see her confidence in tatters, and her pride bashed.

The logical part of me says, “It happens.” 

Not only is failure inevitable, it’s a positive. Coping with failure teaches kids emotional resilience, right? It teaches them to pick themselves up and keep trying until they succeed, or find another wall to bang their heads against. They’ll learn there’s no substitute for hard work and practice, and that even then, you might not succeed.

To be honest, Flea doesn’t see it like that. Yes. For now, all she sees is, “I’m TERRIBLE at school, and I work SO hard,” and “Now I’m never going to be able to do a a degree in computer science.” 

I did refrain (just) from pointing out that even if computer science isn’t in her future, the dramatic arts are waiting for her with open arms.

So what do good parents do? According to the Internet, it’s… complicated.

On the one hand, you’re supposed to help your child regain their confidence, and not let them mope too long. But be careful not to give them excessive praise, because that makes them lazy. You should praise the effort if not the achievement. If you praise too much, your child might find praise meaningless. Or they might become reliant on others for validation of their self-worth. It depends which website you read. Oh and be sure to encourage them to brainstorm ideas for avoiding failure in future.

God, it’s so bloody complicated, this parenting lark, isn’t it?

Anyway, I bluffed it.

First, I pointed out that everyone flunks something sometime, and nobody loves you any less.

Second, I said that she’s had some great success, too – 93% in English isn’t too shabby.

Then I suggested she talk to her teacher, work out why she flunked the test, and make sure she applies that learning to the next test. Because failing is okay, and nobody expects perfection. But I do expect her to learn from mistakes and try to do better next time.

Who knows if the Internet parenting experts would approve, but hopefully it’ll help.

Do you have any tips for helping kids cope with failure?