How To Teach Children About Failure

When I was a child, I had an unwavering passion for writing. I wrote stories, created magazines and even invented different languages, so strong was my love of words. The purpose of all this was pure enjoyment. There were no expectations levelled on my passion until something happened as I teetered towards the end of childhood that meant I wouldn’t pick up a pen again for twenty years.

At age 13, I entered a short story writing competition at school. It was the first time my unbridled passion for the art was unleashed on the world and I felt confident of success. I poured my heart into my story, spending hours editing, re-editing and re-writing until the finished product, in my neatest scribe, was ready to be judged. It was my best ever work, I had toiled over it for weeks and had enjoyed every minute of writing it, so it made sense that I was going to win right?

I didn’t win.

When the winning entry was published in the school magazine, I read over it with a heavy heart with the crushing realisation that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer after all. I was a failure. From that day onwards I put down my pen. My stories and magazines were hidden away, gathering dust at the same rate my dreams of becoming a writer. As I became increasingly caught up in teenage dilemmas, I eventually forgot I had ever enjoyed writing in the first place.

As I sit here 22 years later, I often regret my actions. If only I had a better relationship with failure at the time, I wouldn’t have missed out on 20 years of writing. I have lost so much time with my craft, I lost years of opportunity to learn and improve and most importantly, I missed out on countless hours of enjoyment and fulfillment.

What if I had realised then that I shouldn’t confuse the inevitable act of failing at something with a personality trait? If only I knew then that failing at something did not make me a failure. Why couldn’t I just enjoy writing without worrying about where it would take me? Why did I let my passion be clouded by one single failure? Why was I not resilient enough to carry on writing?

My 13 year old self didn’t have the capacity to formulate those questions, let alone answer them. But now at 35 and after many, many failures in my life, I have worked hard to reformulate my relationship with failure into a more positive and realistic one.

Now, one of my strongest desires is to help my children do the same.

I should imagine that my childhood view of failure was a pretty innate one. It is only with years of reading around the subject and drawing on the experiences of others that I can finally say I welcome failure with the same open arms as I embrace success. I could even describe failure as a friend. A blunt friend, who says it as it is and may cause you to squirm for a while until you realise that her words were what you needed to hear.

It is now my responsibility to cultivate the same friendship for my children by helping them to grasp the difference between failing and being a failure. When failure shows up it must be welcomed and, more importantly, its actions and ways must be explained if it is going to have any chance of being understood.

If my children can grow up with this knowledge about failure hardwired within them, they won’t need to spend years toiling with their relationship with failure in the same way I did.

It all hinges on finding a way to show my children that failure is an inevitable part of life. In the age of celebrity, I must make them see past the adulation and trappings of fame to come to know there’s not a single ‘successful’ person alive today who has not experienced and continues to experience failure.

Life is a journey of ups and downs, successes and failures. This journey is on a loop and plays out continuously. It doesn’t end in a single destination – success or failure. I need to help my children think of success and failure as passengers on a train ride, not final stops where they must alight

If you also wish to guide your children through these very complicated concepts, here are some steps that may help:

Re-Examine Your Own Relationship With Failure

I used to think that failure was the opposite of success. It was as simple as dark verses light or hot verses cold. But I was very wrong. The opposite of success is actually not trying at all. The years I spent denying myself the joy of writing were the opposite of success.

If you confuse the act of failing with a personality trait, as I used to, it’s time to reassess your idea of failure. Only when we realise that failure is a natural and inevitable part of life’s journey can we begin to welcome failure into the fold and learn what we can from it.

There is a quote I often see bandied around the internet, which goes something like this, ‘Imagine what you could achieve if you knew you wouldn’t fail?’ It’s meant to be inspiring but in all honesty, I just find it annoying and misleading. I am going to fail. You are going to fail. Our children are going to fail.

So let’s rephrase it to, ‘Imagine what you could achieve if you tried and failed, tried and failed, tried and succeeded then tried and failed again?’ In this new mantra, the emphasis is on trying. Equal emphasis should also be on the enjoyment gained from a pursuit which leads me to my next point.

Detaching From Outcome

When I entered the short story competition at school, I was entirely focused on the outcome. I ignored the hours of pleasure writing gave me and instead craved to win the competition so my status as a writer would be cemented externally. How sad for me that I allowed one failure to deny me years of enjoyment and fulfilment. I didn’t need the judge of that competition to endorse me; I already knew that I loved writing.

We need to teach our children that, whatever they try their hand at, the most important factor is their enjoyment of it. If your child takes up ice-skating for example, they should focus on their love of the activity.

No doubt a child who practises ice skating will enter competitions. They may have a dream of reaching the Olympics which is an admirable goal. However, if their journey is guided by their love of ice-skating and not the inevitable failures and successes, it will be a much smoother one. In other words, if they love ice-skating enough they can be taught how to roll with success, failure and everything in-between.

The outcome is irrelevant, all that matters is the fun and fulfillment gained from our experiences. If this is the case, then failure when it comes should be easier to swallow.

My daughter loves drawing. When I talk to her about it, I try to focus on how it makes her feel rather than where it could take her.

Reward Effort Not Outcome

Did your child give it their all? Did they spend hours writing an essay for history class? Reward their effort, even if the result was disappointing. We have all gained disappointing grades from time to time but we shouldn’t let this stop us from trying.

Sometimes in life we have to do things we don’t want to do. If we can give those tasks 100 percent, then we have succeeded whatever the outcome.

Give Constant Examples

My seven year old daughter is obsessed with Harry Potter and I make sure I tell her the story of how her beloved stories came about.

As a single mum, J. K. Rowling wrote the first book in a cafe while rocking her sleeping baby in a stroller. She sent her manuscript to many publishers and was rejected numerous times until finally one agreed to publish the book. Imagine if she had given up? The world wouldn’t have Harry Potter. Imagine all the other incredible stories and films we have missed out on because their creators gave up when confronted with failure.

When I relate this story to my daughter I make sure I place emphasis on the fact that J.K. Rowling persevered because she loved writing and believed in what she was doing. Sure she wanted her book to be published but it was something greater than that which drove her. It was her love for her craft. Her perseverance paid off eventually, but her eventual success was not without failure. I’m sure she continues to experience failure today; she is after all human.

All children have heroes and famous people they look up to. And I’m positive that those people have seen many failures in their lives. We can research their stories and relate their failures and successes to our children, making it clear that we all undertake a similar journey.

It’s Ok To Give Up

Society has given us a very warped idea of giving up. Those who give up are called quitters or losers. We are encouraged to persevere at all costs.

Now I’m all for perseverance but not at the cost of your happiness or sanity. If the thing you’re doing brings you unhappiness, pain and resentment and you no longer enjoy the act of doing it then it’s fine to give up. A balance has to be struck between pursuing an activity you enjoy which fulfils you and slogging away at something which is making you miserable.

Quitting is fine, if for the right reasons. When I gave up writing all those years ago it was for the wrong reasons. It was because I thought failing meant I was a failure. I allowed this belief to overshadow the pleasure and fulfilment I gained from writing. Now, imagine I had hated every second of writing that story. If the act of writing brought me no happiness at all, then quitting would have fine. Indeed, it would have been the sensible and strong thing to do.

Knowing when to quit shows as much strength of character as deciding to persevere.

One of my favourite quotes on failure is by basketball legend Michael Jordan. I think his words sum up exactly what we should teach our children about failure.

‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed’.

Jordan’s words are easy for children to understand because they can be visualised clearly. He succinctly explains that success and failure are intertwined. He is an example of why we shouldn’t shy away from failure.

Inevitably, without failure we will never taste success. And more importantly, if we give up something we love because we are afraid of failure, we are doing ourselves a great injustice.





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