Help Your Kids Make Mistakes and Avoid Failure Phobia
By Dr. Elisa Medhus, M.D.
Ever get the impression your toddler thinks he’s just as big and powerful as you? It’s not your imagination getting out of hand; as far as he’s concerned, he’s the master of his own domain. But in a few years from now he is going to come face to face with that monster lurking around the corner —- the inevitable scrutiny, evaluation and faultfinding from others, and then he will begin to question his power. Unless we teach our children how to embrace mistakes, defeats, our self-confident little dynamo may learn to fear ridicule and reprimand. Eventually, he may even rely on outside evaluation to assess his own performance, measure his self-worth, and shape his future choices.
Why does this happen? Simple. We humans are pack animals, and toddlers are no exception. Heck, I’ve seen a few of my own howl at the moon and roll around in disgusting stuff from time to time. And like all pack animals, we have a strong need to belong. What our kids often don’t learn is that this need can be satisfied in two ways —- earning acceptance by offering unique contributions or roles that benefit the pack or begging for acceptance by making all choices contingent upon whatever will win the pack’s approval. If they choose compliance over contribution, failure can become a ball and chain for our kids and the adults they will become.
Of the hundreds of children I interviewed in researching my book over the past few years, most cited failure phobia as the one factor responsible for their frequent reluctance to make choices. In the same interview process, teachers and parents both insisted that the numbers of those children they consider underachievers (those who choose not to choose, because they are afraid their choices will result in failure) and perfectionists (those who choose according to the highest possible social standards, because they are afraid that making a lesser choice will make them less acceptable) are escalating at an alarming rate. People from either group become afraid to make decisions in fear that the product of their thoughts may produce failures that weaken their sense of worth. Instead, they rely on others to do the thinking for them. Once they rely on others to guide them through life, they will likely grow to be adolescents and adults that are no longer able to think for themselves at all.
The bottom line: children who can’t handle failure well allow their choices to be governed by their need for approval rather than their sense of right and wrong. And when that approval is dispensed by their peers and shaped by the pop culture, they often fall prey to substance abuse, promiscuity, deteriorating academics, gang involvement, low self-esteem, lack of creativity, irresponsibility, and other commonplace problems. For those who aren’t rewarded with the approval they seek, there’s frustration, anger, cynicism, apathy, depression, rebellion, aggressive or violent behavior, and so on.
As parents, we can raise our children to both welcome and learn from their mistakes instead of being shattered by them. We can aspire to teach them to use their mistakes to help them grow instead of allowing those mistakes to generate external reactions that will make them wither. Only then can they strive for personal excellence, which, when it boils right down to it, is what we really want for them.
Here are some suggestions that will help our children develop good defeat recovery skills:[list][*]Never admonish yourself openly for a mistake. Instead, mention what solution you intend to use and what you learned from that mistake. “Oops, I burned the mashed potatoes again. I’ll wash out this pan and start all over again. I guess I shouldn’t try to cook and read magazines at the same time!” [*]Never deny your children something they’re good at as a consequence for misbehavior. For instance, if your toddler is very creative with building blocks and her favorite play activity is building shopping malls and suspension bridges with them, be sure not to punish her by taking them away: “Look at the mess you made with those paints! How am I ever going to get this off my newly painted walls? Sarah, you naughty girl! For that, you’re not allowed to play with your blocks today.” If Sarah is repeatedly denied what she excels in, eventually, she’ll grow to shun goals altogether. [*]Teach your children that there is no quota for failed attempts. There’s progress and success to be found in each of them. If your toddler is trying to learn to button his shirt, try not to intervene unless he becomes overwhelmed. Point out the buttons he did manage to fasten. The next attempt, bring up how he keeps on trying. The third attempt, point out how he correctly lined up some of them, and so on. [*]Have weekly family mistake contests that your toddler can observe and eventually participate in when he’s old enough. You and the older children must record every mistake they’ve made during the day. During dinner, each can describe the mistake from which they’ve learned the most. The entire family can then decide which one was the best and why. Because this unmasks the advantages that each failure offers, children become more accepting of their shortcomings and mistakes.[*]Never bring up past mistakes. “Tommy, this is the third time you’ve tipped over your milk today.”[*]Teach your children to develop “failure tolerance” by not over-reacting to their mistakes. Focus on the solution, not the problem or whose to blame. For instance, if Billy misses a fly ball in the outfield in the last inning, instead of saying, “Gosh Billy, how could you miss that easy catch?" you might try saying something like, “I noticed how upset you were when you missed that fly ball, but wow, those two runs you made really helped the team out. It shows how hard you’ve been working on your batting. I bet if you and I practiced catching every day after school, you’re outfield catching will get a lot better, too. Wanna give it a whirl?” Encourage your children to do things on their own, whenever possible. We shouldn’t rescue them from their struggles, settle their conflicts, or shelter them from challenges unless absolutely necessary. These actions send a message that they can’t make choices or manage tasks without our help. It also suggests a perfect result is more important than the attempt, itself. [*]Never compare your child to others. “Bobby, why can’t you be a big boy like John and stop whining all the time?”[*]Address the behavior, not the child: “Hitting is not allowed,” instead of “Quit being so mean.” [*]Never openly belittle others for their mistakes. [*]Always point out the successes that are buried in every failure. If Megan spills the milk, point out how she got her own cup out of the cupboard, lifted the milk carton up by herself, and so on.[*]Accept suffering as a good thing. When children struggle, they develop strength and compassion. They also learn that suffering is something they can overcome. When I was observing a class of children with learning problems, their interactions really had an impact on me. These were kids who had suffered a lot at the hands of teachers and parents who constantly expressed their feelings of exasperation, anger and disappointment. They had suffered the burdens of such labels as lazy, procrastinator, stupid, slow and so on. I could see that through all this suffering, they had developed compassion and understanding for others. They were so eager to help one another, praise those who were conquering a task they were struggling with, and console those who were upset or frustrated. Many children never develop this wonderful quality.[/list:u]Once our children use their mistakes and failures as a tool to help them learn and grow, imagine the repercussions! They’re more willing to take risks, learn new skills and explore the unknown. The skills and abilities they’d inevitably gain then leads to a strong sense of independence. The result is a healthy self-esteem. And what about the benefits for the rest of the world? Throughout history, risk takers like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Madam Curie, the Wright brothers, and Jonas Salk have blessed us with much that is wonderful in our world.
About the Author
Elisa Medhus, M.D. is author of Raising Children Who Think for Themselves. A veteran physician of thirteen years, Dr. Medhus is also the mother of five children ages 6 through 17.