Helping Kids Cope with Failure

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? 



15 thoughts on “Helping Kids Cope with Failure”

  1. I found that bit about praising the effort rather than the result very interesting. I’m teaching a generation of students who come to me if they get a low grade in English and complain, “but I worked on it for hours.” The implication is that it’s not fair to give a low grade after so much effort. I have to explain to them that I’m grading their level of English not the amount of time they put into studying.

    As for my own daughter, I’m very laid back about school work and grades. As long as she’s keeping up and she feels comfortable in the lessons. As a teacher, my experience is that when they find something they are passionate about and want to make a career from, they will do whatever it takes to get the relevant qualifications. Even if it means going back to do , e.g. science A’levels at age 25 or learn grade one piano in the sixth form, if they want it badly enough they will do it. I told DD that I expect her to be good at maths and English as these are basic tools for learning, and the rest is up to her.

    One caveat to the above. It’s extremely important that a child knows it’s never to too late to go back and re-qualify. There are so many things I didn’t do because I assumed that my mediocre A’levels barred me from them. Then at age 22 with a B.Ed. and a teacher’s certificate, I assumed I had to be a teacher and only a teacher. When you’re a 68 year old lawyer to the United Nations, no one will remember or care that you only qualified as a lawyer at age 38!

  2. Yep, I’m with you on the effort thing.

    I think it’s okay (and actually *really* important) as a parent to say, “I can see you tried really hard on that, which is great, but your overall mark wasn’t great.”

    For Flea, her confidence and pride are dented and she feels worried she’s let her parents down. So my job is to reassure her that I recognise she worked hard, and we’re proud of THAT but we’re not okay with bad results, and she needs to fix that.

    I get what you mean about it not being too late, but going back to re-qualify is a lot harder (and less likely to happen) than getting a qualification first time!

  3. I think they do have to learn to cope with failure, and our job is to listen to them and comfort them. I always tell my daughters that they can learn from every experience, good and bad, and it will make them stronger for any future bumps along the way.

    Apart from that, most people have (at least) one thing that they’re not the best at, it’s what makes most of us human 🙂

  4. You can’t be good at everything, and there’s always going to be someone better than you. When someone thinks everything he does is perfect, he’s going to experience quite a lot of disappointment in life, so I totally subscribe to allowing a bit of not so great into the kids’ lives. I tend to point out their strengths, then ask if they really want to improve on their weaknesses; and if they do, the strategy is the same as yours – find out from the experts what you could do better, then decide if you want to do it. You’ll always do better, even if you don’t ever achieve the top ranks. And it’s the improvement and the striving that matters.

  5. As someone who always did pretty well atyschool without trying all that hard, the occasional poor mark or low test result did me good in the long run I think. It reminded me that I did actually have to work and that it wouldn’t all just come to me – I just wish if realised that sooner in my A Level courses rather than right at the last minute!
    It sounds to me like you’ve handled it all really well. Hopefully she’s feeling a bit happier now and can move on x

  6. I think this is really difficult to deal with as a parent to stand back and support your child. You wish you could wrap them in a bubble and protect them from it all, but you can’t. I feel you can’t be good at everything and this is what I try to tell my kids. To celebrate the good things, support the tricker things and keep trying at them all. xx

  7. Oh bless her heart. It’s tough isn’t it? Dexter isn’t so hard on himself thankfully, but then he’s never got 93% in anything, so I think his standards, for want of a better word, are lower. I wonder if boys look at exams differently than girls? Having only raised boys, I’m not sure, but it sounds like you said all the ‘right’ things in the circumstances and she’ll look back on her ‘failure’ and see that she coped, and used that experience to do better next time. It’s tough been a tween isn’t it?!

    1. Yeah, it’s tricky because on the one hand it’s tempting to dismiss it when she’s devastated by a low B or C grade but to someone used to excelling, it feels like failure and my sniggering at her doesn’t really help. Tempting tho.

  8. I think it is really hard to find the right balance, especially as there is so much focus on taking part and not the winning. When actually doing well is key. However, you can not be good at everything and I try and encourage the boys to do their very best especially at the things we find challenging. I model that by not giving up on things even when I know I can not win or be the best.

    We have had similar with Mini and football this week and we are trying to encourage him to attend the training in the hope of getting better and getting in a team.

    1. Ha!I think you know I’m not really a believer in ‘it’s the taking part that counts’. I think for Flea the lesson is not giving up and writing something off because off one poor result – in this case it’s a subject where she normally performs really well, and even her “failure” was a low Grade B. She just gives herself such a hard time when it’s not straight As.

  9. I think you handled it really well. Yes, it happens, but when kids are used to doing really well it can come as a bit of a blow. I echo what Jen says above, that not everyone is good at everything. The older children become the easier it is to see what they will excel in and what they will find more difficult.

    1. Yes, my SIL tells her kids it’s okay to have a subject you don’t like and don’t excel at, everyone has that. I suspect Flea’s going to be the same with her arts versus sciences, but it’s tough!

  10. I’m having this with my 11 year old daughter too. Despite excelling at everything, she’s pretty much stuck with the notion that because she’s not an Able and Gifted pupil like her brother, she’s a failure. We have explored many famous people who never achieved much at school, yet went on to succeed beyond anyone’s expectations during their adult life. I think it’s when we show as parents what failures we’ve had and how we got pass them that they hopefully will appreciate how well they actually doing.

    1. Blimey, so happy they don’t do able and gifted in her school, I can’t imagine the pressure whether she was or wasn’t! That’s tough on kids, isn’t it? I agree, we tell her a lot about our failures, and given we’re both academic “success stories” hopefully it shows her that even the smart people flunk an exam once in a while!

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