How to Talk to a Kid About Failure

Research says showing a kid how to deal with failure is as important as talking to them.

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Failure is always an option. In most situations, it’s the default option. Happily, failures exist on a continuum from “gee that sucked” to “everybody’s dead” and the stakes for kids generally lean toward the low. For parents, that means there’s a window early in a child’s life when they can learn about failure and its consequences without suffering real ramifications.

The question is: How can parents make sure their kids learn from failure? Dr. Kyla Haimovitz and her research partner Dr. Carol S. Dweck looked at that question in 2016. The two were studying children’s attitudes, or mindset, towards their own intelligence. They wondered if children’s beliefs about whether or not their intelligence could be improved was linked to parents. “We know that has a big impact on a child’s motivation, especially after failure,” Haimovitz tells Fatherly. Specifically, they found that parents’ beliefs about failure were a pretty good predictor for a kids attitude about their inevitable screw ups.

“We found that parents who believed failure was enhancing had kids who believed they could grow their abilities,” Haimovitz explains. “Whereas parents who believed failure was debilitating had children who believed they couldn’t grow their abilities.”

So, how were attitudes being communicated to these kids? The researchers reasoned that, though parents’ inner thoughts on failure were often not made explicit to their progeny, children were naturally good at making inferences. That may sound obvious, but it’s worth dwelling on the nature of the behavior because a parent’s reaction to failure is often automatic. People struggle to self-censor.

That makes it incredibly important for a parent to understand their own reaction to failure and adjust behaviors accordingly before something goes sideways, Haimovitz explains. “If parents themselves are getting really freaked out and stressing about failure, kids pick up on that.” Parents telegraph that stress to their kids in different ways. It can manifest in wondering aloud if the kid will ever get better. Vocal worries and even overt emotional comforting can be a sign of parental stress.

So it’s import to take a breath during stressful moments of failure. Taking a beat allows parents to decide if they want to go big and teach a lesson by asking their kids about feelings, or if they want to keep it small and just move the hell on. If parents take the former approach, they’ll be better off going in upbeat.

The Three-Pronged Approach to Talking to a Kid About Failure

  • Adopt a confrontational approach to failure. Ask kids about their feelings rather than insist they should move past them.
  • Teach that failure can be enhancing instead of debilitating. Demonstrate that kids can grow their abilities through failure.
  • Reflect on your reaction to failure and adjust behaviors accordingly. Frame your own failures the same way you frame your child’s.

“It’s about how you’re communicating a broader message,” Haimovitz says. “This is exciting, not horrifying. It’s exciting and fun.”

But the antecedent to talking to a kid about failure isn’t always something they’ve done. Haimovitz is currently working on a study exploring, in part, how parents’ talk about their own failures influence their children. She notes that when parents notice they’re internalizing or globalizing their own failures, they can stop and correct themselves, out loud, in front of their kid. They can talk about their own failures being a good learning experience.

“It’s really our actions that kids pick up on,” Haimovitz reiterates. “Our words and actions have so much power to shape the way kids think about themselves and how they are motivated.”

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