Dealing with failure
A show has been running on Channel 4 this summer looking at child geniuses, gifted kids with high IQs and parents with high expectations.
With judges, peers and parents looking on, the children have to perform a series of tests to demonstrate their mental dexterity, from remembering the order of a shuffled pack of cards, to spelling unpronounceable words.
Occasionally the programme’s producer cuts to a shot of an anxious mum or dad struggling to conceal their disappointment as their prodigy flounders on the spelling of triskaidekaphobia (a fear of the number 13) or incorrectly recalls that the Jack of Hearts, not the Queen, followed on from the Nine of Spades.
But failure is part of life, it’s part of growing up, so how should parents help their kids deal with it, whether it’s being flummoxed in a highfaluting spelling bee or trailing in last on sports day?
Jenny McGarry is head teacher at St Mary’s Primary School in Moss Side, Manchester. “It’s really important that children are able to make mistakes in a safe environment,” she says, “and that starts at home and then progresses to school. It’s important that they build up some resilience from a very early age.”
Children need to feel that their parents are their partners and on their side, not an additional source of pressure. Reassure them that it’s OK to make mistakes! And while it may seem a very British concept, let your child know that winning isn’t the most important thing – effort and attitude matter just as much as the final result.
This is all the more true if your child is particularly academic, and used to succeeding, says Jenny. “Failure can be particularly hard then, because they aren’t equipped to deal with it.”
Reinforce all the other things they are good at too, because young people need to know that it’s not the end of the world to fail at something - encouragement and praise are powerful tools.
Failure can also be turned into a learning experience that can actually improve your child’s ability to succeed in the future. As Bill Gates famously said: “It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
Talking through things is a good starting point but it’s also important to listen. Try to find out why things went wrong and what your child could or should do differently next time.
However, there is a flipside.
“Dealing with failure can be very difficult for some young people but they do need to take responsibility if they haven’t worked hard enough. If they’ve messed around, then they need to face up to things,” says Jenny.
But ultimately she says: “Your love for a child should never be based on what they achieve academically. Reassure them that whatever happens, you’ll still love them.”
Some dos and don’ts:
- Do reward effort not results
- Don’t resort to punishments
- Don’t make comparison with friends or siblings
- Do build their confidence
- Do find out how your child works best – help them get organised for future tests
- Don’t let your kids’ failure affect your own self esteem.
- Do have realistic expectations about what your child can achieve
- Do be sympathetic.