Wood's Homes Blog

The gift of failure: What imperfection can teach kids about success

January 30, 2019
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
The gift of failure: What imperfection can teach kids about success

Well, it’s almost the end of January and we all know what that means – many of our New Year’s Resolutions have already lost their way. In fact, a recent study has shown that the majority of such resolutions don’t make it past Jan. 12. If you were one of the 80% of individuals who set unrealistic expectations that you weren’t able to meet, you were not alone.

That said, the article also points out that Jan. 1 is simply one of many days – and there’s no reason why we can’t start working towards our goals again tomorrow.  Rather than giving up at the end of January, we have the opportunity to revisit, reassess, recharge and reset our goals. We also have the opportunity to teach our kids about the benefits of failure and how learning from past mistakes can make us better in the future.

Much has already been written – I recommend checking out this article and this one – about the ways in which parents are sometimes vulnerable to the urge to keep their children from ever feeling the pangs of disappointment. However, when we consider that resiliency and self-esteem are built on experiences of adversity and successfully achieving challenging tasks, then we have to realize that in moments like these, less can really be so much more.

In the case of our failed resolutions, we can be a role model for our children when we acknowledge our own humanity and humility, and illustrate persistence and what it really takes to achieve our goals – to try, try and try again. If mastering a particular skill really takes 10,000+ hours of practice, we must acknowledge that many of those hours were spent failing to get it right. As my ski instructor recently commented, “If you’re not falling, then you aren’t learning.” 

With that said, there are times when it might be helpful to learn that success can also come from recognizing when it’s time to stop trying one thing and moving on to another area with more potential success. Sometimes this comes naturally, such as when your child doesn’t make it past tryouts for the team or fails an exam. These are opportunities to talk about how to recognize when something might not be your ‘thing’, or how to start hitting the gym or the books with more purpose – and your child likely has a pretty good idea already as to which one of those choices is the answer that’s best for them. 

Sometimes the issue isn’t the goal itself, but the unrealistic expectations about how that goal will be achieved. We all want to reach our goals without having to work at them, but that’s not how life works. Learning to set realistic expectations and timelines are what the experts say are ‘the answers to future success.’  What a gift for our children to learn that disappointment is as natural as it is fleeting, and that life is full of opportunities to get back up, brush ourselves off and recalibrate for success.