Learning to Fail

Failure is something many people fear. Working mums worry about failing their kids, their husbands/partners, their employers. We worry that we’re not good enough, that if we focus on one aspect of our lives too much, others will miss out.

The education system, despite updated lingo, is based around success and failure as defined by measurable standards. So unless you’re child is Einstein, it’s highly likely they will experience failure at some point in their educational experience. (And if Einstein sat NCEA, there’d be subjects he’d struggle with too!)

It’s human nature to shy away from failure. We shut down, pick another option, give up, stick to the road well-travelled, become risk averse. But one of the most important parts of developing skills is embracing failure. These days we call it “not yet achieved ” or “progressing towards achievement”. For some kids, achievement is the ultimate goal. Some aim beyond. Either way is fine as long as it’s your best.

But we must teach our young people that as painful and difficult as it is to “fail” failure is a vital part of the learning experience. No one gets everything right all the time. We all find some skills/concepts easier to learn than others.

It’s what we do with failure that’s important. Do we focus on why we didn’t quite make the grade and try again or simply give up? As parents, do we reassure our kids that it’s okay to miss the mark sometimes or do we make excuses – blame the teacher, the school, the ex?

Ask anyone working in a tertiary institution and they’ll tell you that those most likely to experience academic success are resilient young people who have learned to manage their learning, to problem solve and to persevere. Those who are accustomed to being escorted over the line often struggle to independently manage their learning.

Our approach to academic learning can be transferred to other areas – sports fields, workplaces, relationships. It’s so important that our kids don’t see failure as an end point. Otherwise how will they ever grow as people?

Here’s a few simple ideas for supporting them (and each other) through failure:

  • Help them work out what went wrong and how they can improve
  • Encourage them to keep going, to stick with the task rather than walk away
  • Remind them that some of life’s most “successful” people found traditional learning difficult – Richard Branson, Gareth Morgan to name a few
  • Build up their self esteem by focusing on what they do well
  • Value people who try new things, despite the fear of failure
  • Ensure your love is unconditional  – don’t chastise them for getting stuff wrong
  • Model learning as a lifelong process – try to learn new things yourself and share your success and failure with your kids. Knitting? Preserving? Quantum physics? Public speaking?

Above all, don’t fixate on failure. Aim to learn something from it, find meaning and move on.

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