Raising Children to be Comfortable with Failure

Growing up in Singapore is no easy feat, especially for children just entering the country’s education system. Even before compulsory education (when children turn 7 years old), we hear of children in preschool and kindergarten finishing homework, projects, or sitting for minor tests. Well-meaning parents who fear their children will be left behind, naturally place a great amount of emphasis on doing well and on success. All of this is but a reflection of a fear of failure. Afterall, who would want their own children to fail? But is failure really that bad a thing? And how do we start raising children to be comfortable with failure?

Growing up in a rather strict results-driven family, my own parents focused a plenty on success. I was enrolled in tuition, ballet classes, and speech and drama classes, on top of my school hours and compulsory Co-Curriculum Activities (CCA) where I was captain of the school’s Netball team. As expected, my daily schedule was packed from the moment I wake at 5.30am to catch the school bus to as late as 10pm. I was tired but enjoyed all my extra classes and eventually, my body got used to the hectic schedule.

I don’t blame my parents for raising me the way they did and if anything, I am eternally grateful. Even as a young child, I saw the importance of hard work and strive to do nothing less than my best. I aimed for the stars and hoped to return with gold medals, distinctions, and As. I still very much see it in me as an adult and even so now that I am a mother, to fulfill my need to succeed and to avoid failure at all cost. It was evident in my anxiety when I failed to provide enough breastmilk for Noah, but one of the many things I was afraid of failing in as a mother. So while fearing failure does have its perks, I also see how debilitating it can be. And this is one thing I hope to teach my son differently.

So what is the one most important thing to note in order to raise children who are comfortable with failure?

In an interview with Business Insider that you can find here, CEO Sara Blakely of SPANX spoke about how her father would ask her what she failed at everyday. He would praise her for failing at something and would even be disappointed if she came home without a failure achieved. It’s weird to put the words “failure” and “achieve” in the same sentence, let alone side by side. But what this did for Blakely was the cultivation of a mindset that was not fearful of failure.

“And what it did was just reframe my definition of failure. Failure for me became not trying versus the outcome.” – Sara Blakely

This in turn also led Blakely to follow in her father’s footsteps as she speaks of her own failures in front of her team of colleagues at work.

Let’s look at another example, Japan’s richest man and Uniqlo founder, Mr. Tadashi Yanai. In an interview you can find here and here, it is clear his focus is on success. Yet he is also fascinated by failure and does not shy away from it. Failure “lit a fire in him” and he spoke about it as if it were a normal everyday business challenge he had to check off his list of to-dos.

What Blakely and Yanai have in common is that they don’t see failure as a negative thing. Instead, they speak openly about it and focus on the lessons they can learn from such failures to aid in their future success.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to focus on success, by all means do that. But to solely focus on success and to associate failure with negative feelings of sadness and disappointment or negative reinforcements such as scoldings or taking away TV time only builds a fear of failure in children. This fear of failing in turn prevent children from feeling safe and comfortable to explore or try new things. So instead of teaching our children only about the importance of success and how to succeed, perhaps we also ought to reframe our own definition of and attitude towards failure. They need to know that we can learn important lessons from failing. That it is perfectly okay to fail and that there is nothing to be embarrassed about or something they will be judged for. They need to see that the adults they look up to are not intimidated by failure but are instead taking it in stride and are thankful for the lessons learnt.

So let it start with you and our little ones will follow.

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