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The Scientific Case For Letting Kids Wallow in Failure

"When people concentrate on how bad they feel and how they don't want to experience these feelings again, they are more likely to try harder the next time."

Dads who tell their kids not to feel bad may be setting them up for future failure, according to a new study. Researchers found that people who reflect on their failures at emotional distance tend to make excuses and not improve; those who let the pain of failure flood in actually learn and improve. The findings are just the latest argument against participation trophies and suggest that parents need to take a beat before reassuring children. They do not, however, suggest that exacerbating the pain of failure or forcing kids wit focus on it is healthy. Don’t do that.

All the advice tells you not to dwell on your mistakes, to not feel bad,” said coauthor on the study Selin Malkoc of Ohio State University, in a statement. “But we found the opposite. When faced with a failure, it is better to focus on one’s emotions. When people concentrate on how bad they feel and how they don’t want to experience these feelings again, they are more likely to try harder the next time.”

For the study, Malkoc and colleagues asked 100 college students to find a particular low-cost blender online — yes, that’s pretty random — and rigged the results so that all of them failed. They then asked half of the participants to focus on their emotional responses to losing, while the other half focused on their intellectual responses. Later, the researchers discovered that those who had focused on their emotional responses largely wallowed in self-pity, while those who had focused on their intellectual responses mainly justified the failure as someone else’s fault.

crying boy sports

To test which approach to failure inspires the most success, Malkoc then presented both groups with a second challenge that involved searching online for a certain low-cost book. They found that the group that let self-pity consume them tried much harder not to fail in the second round. Those who had been given time to justify their losses barely tried in round two.

“If your thoughts are all about how to distance yourself from the failure, you’re not going to learn from your mistakes,” Malkoc said. But “when the participants focused on how bad they felt about failing the first time, they tried harder than others when they had another similar opportunity.”

For parents who tell their kids to chin up and move on, or who help their kids shift blame, Malkoc’s advice is clear: Capitalize on the emotional pain of failing. Reflect on it, and use it inspire improvement the next time around. “Emotional responses to failure can hurt. They make you feel bad. That’s why people often choose to think self-protective thoughts after they make mistakes,” she said. “But if you focus on how bad you feel, you’re going to work harder to find a solution and make sure you don’t make the same mistake again.”