Are we teaching our children to see failure as a learning opportunity, or as a source of embarrassment?
I was speaking yesterday to a close friend of mine, who homeschools her children. Her eldest, who is 15, is now a freshman in college, and has just finished her final exams. My friend, whose blog you can visit at Single Mother (check), explained that her daughter received top scores in all but one class, where she unexpectedly scored a 57.
I groaned sympathetically, remarking that her daughter must have died of embarrassment. “Well, actually,” she replied, “she wasn’t embarrassed at all. “Because my daughter was homeschooled, she never learned to be embarrassed.”
She added that teachers and parents train kids to feel shame when they fail: we write failing grades in big red letters with remarks like, “you can do better than this.” Or when a child comes home with a poor grade, our first reaction is not, “What do you think you can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” but, “How in the world did you get this grade?!”
Her daughter, on the other hand, never experienced this. So she was even able to go up to her friends and reveal her low grade. Surprisingly enough, none of her friends’ reactions were especially negative either. Most simply responded, “I’m surprised at you!” and wished her better luck next time.
This conversation got me thinking. How much energy do we expend feeling embarrassed of our mistakes? Even more importantly, how many times do we sabotage our chances of success because we are so afraid of failure? Intellectually we know that failure isn’t that much of a big deal; after all, we’ve had a lot of experience at it, so you would think after a while we would finally learn to accept it and move on. Somehow, though, we don’t.
Instead we wallow in our failure, and lo and behold, others, influenced by our negative attitude, reinforce our sense of shame with negative remarks and discouraging behavior. It’s as if we invite all of that negative energy by the lousy attitude we have about ourselves.
How different would things be if, instead of putting ourselves down, we confidently replied to others, “I’ll do better next time.” I suspect the response would be generally encouraging as well.
If we want to help our children see failure as an opportunity instead of a life sentence, we need to start with ourselves. When we mess up -whether it’s big time or just the little league- our children need to hear us saying,” Wow, I didn’t expect that. What should I do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” Even if we slip and start condemning ourselves, it makes a world of difference if our children hear us saying, “I shouldn’t be beating myself up about this. I need to think about what I can do to make sure I do better next time.”
Little by little, we’ll begin to break the failure cycle. Maybe one day our children will even remind us not to be so hard on ourselves.