Teaching Children How to Fail

“If we don’t have the skills to get back up, we may not risk falling.” Brene Brown[/caption]

We can’t expect our children to do more with their lives if they do not know how to fail. And failing is a skill, which means it can be learned. Here’s what to do.

Falling and failing is as much a part of life as breathing is. Even those of us who avoid risk at all costs are perhaps taking the biggest risk of all. That we do nothing and achieve nothing!

Children who are struggling can be so scared to fail an exam, lose a friend or scrape a knee that they work to avoid anything that could cause them hurt – emotionally, physically and socially. They can live protected lives filled with anxiety and fear and pain. In Brown’s book, Dare to Lead, she uses skydiving as a metaphor. When you first go skydiving the instructors start with teaching you how to fall. You spend a lot of time learning and practicing how to fall, and what to do if your parachute fails. It makes sense, they can’t teach you that after you have jumped out the aircraft. So why do we not teach our children in the same way?

At OMATAS Learning and Intervention Centre we teach children how to fall and how to get back up. And you can too. Here are my tricks, exclusively for those of you who visit us on social media often.

Read the TIP and just do it. Or carry on to read the explanation below each tip for a bit of the HOW and the WHY.

Happy parenting!


STEP #1 – encourage them to come to you when they fall.

Children need to know that they can DO something when they fall or fail.

You will have to use your judgement here, but 9/10 times you can calmly catch their gaze, hold their gaze to reassure them that they are not in this alone, and encourage them to get up and come to you. The ‘getting up’ is very important.

(Does it go without saying that broken bones, spurting blood and imminent danger should not be treated in this way? Maybe not, but now I have said it.)

Why get them to come to you?

They get to learn that they have the ability and enough inner wisdom and strength to get up and help themselves.

In the beginning, you may have to meet them halfway, but use all of your loving parenting powers to keep them moving. You want forward motion. They must be leaning towards the solution, rather than physically (and emotionally) staying STUCK. If they flat refuse to move, look for even the smallest possible movement towards you. Even if it is just them raising their hands to be picked up.

This works just as well when they fail a test or fight with their friends. I’ll get into that a bit later.

An interesting note here: one of the predictors of ‘okayness’ as they grow older, is if they can anticipate and move towards something. In young children, that can be seen as noticing when someone is about to engage with them and they respond. No response is often a cause for concern. It could be a hearing impairment or even a cognitive delay. Though, we have to believe that when a skill isn’t at first present, that it can be mediated so that it becomes present in a child. This is why MOVEMENT in the face of difficulty must be encouraged.

This is also why over-parenting is such a big deal for therapists. Children who are over-protected lose their ‘okayness’, they lose the willingness to respond to the world.

At OMATAS Learning and Intervention Centre, we do this when they actually fall and hurt themselves, but we also do this with academics and with emotional falls. Children can transfer skills across their life, so if they learn to come and get help when they have been hurt on the playground, they can also learn how to get help when they don’t understand something in class, or when they are being bullied.

Here’s an academic example. Take a child who got only one sum correct, we want to avoid that ‘stuckness’ so we dive straight into the work and get really, really curious. Kids can get stuck in the cycle of shame and guilt. We want to move away from the berating self-talk they can be prone to, and start moving their brains in another direction.

We may set a challenge for some, “Can you find the one thing that you do most often when you are getting your sums wrong?” Curiosity is forward movement. Searching for something is forward movement. Maybe we take a different approach and ask them to self-mark, this encourages them to look at the details and think more carefully. These opportunities often bring about the biggest changes in their thinking, and the feeling of having some control of themselves.

Be gentle with them at first, self-control can be scary when you’ve always had a hand to hold onto.

TIP #2 – give them choices.

Children who do not learn from experiences as much as we would like, they can develop single options for themselves. For example: they might learn from early on that screaming brings mom rushing in, or that fighting keeps everyone away, or that pretending it isn’t happening makes the feelings disappear. These choices come to them when they are little and then stick around, they develop no other options for reacting or behaving, unless they are taught a new way.

Your job here is to show them another way.

LEVEL ONE – “You can do this, or you can do that.” This is a really simple way of showing them that they have more than one option. Start with simple things like what to wear in the morning, or veggies for dinner. But they have to choose, they cannot say no to both. This is the introduction to taking decisive action.

LEVEL TWO –  “What else do you think you can do next time?” or, in the moment, you could say, “What else can you do now that would help you?” I am thinking of times when your kid is stuck up a tree, or realises that she hasn’t done her homework yet, or hasn’t packed her swimming costume and you’re already at school.

When you brainstorm options together it creates possibility thinking. Don’t knock any idea, have fun with it, and use it as an opportunity to be firm about things that would not be acceptable. Your kid might say, “I could set his school bag on fire.” And you could laugh and say that would be funny if it was a cartoon, but in real life that could cause serious harm and probably get you expelled. “So what else could you do? Remember you want a different outcome next time.” No reasonable idea should be taken off the table.

Once you have a few options (feel free to add some ideas of your own) ask them what they might try next time, which one sounds like the best option. Leave them with this thought, try something different and see what happens. The very act of being curious means that they are, again, moving forward and taking action. They are no longer STUCK.

TIP #3 – ‘spell’ it out and then practice it

Not all children learn directly from an experience.  They must get a chance to play it out, to try it on, to get a feel for this new option they have.

When you have a few new ideas, do some role-playing. Show them what giving up looks like in your body: slumped shoulders, droopy eyes, big heavy sighs. The show them what curiosity looks like in your body: leaning forward, raised eyebrows, sitting up straight. Now their turn. Ask them how each one feels and what they think about it. If they say they feel no difference, let that be, it is not wrong just notice it.

Make it light and fun, no heavy feelings. Help your child to try a few things out. They could do extreme-drama and show you what they normally do, but in a more dramatic way than usual. Then ask them to try THE NEW IDEA. Muscle memory is a very real thing, what you are trying to do here is to make the new option feel like a possibility.

Children can be taught other ways of handling situations. And they can be taught how to practice them and how to make them part of who they are so that they can use them whenever they need to. But that means we must allow them to learn. That takes a bit of parenting courage.

Whether they try THE NEW IDEA the next time, or not, be supportive and curious. You don’t need the curiosity of a criminal investigator, rather the type of curiosity that your dog displays when he tilts his head to the side as if to say, “tell me more, I really care, I’m with you on this.”

TIP #4 – their actions are not who they are, it is just what they did.

When your child knocks his milk off the table onto the carpet is something he has done. When your daughter comes home with only 2 spelling words correct, that is something she has done. These things don’t define their worth or their value. When they start to use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, find a way to question those statements. What they do and what they achieve are all things that can change. They are not fixed.

We want children to be okay with making mistakes, with doing the wrong thing, even with being naughty at times. We must not make the mistake of thinking that these actions define them, because if we do that, we seal their destiny and they become as worthy as we allow them to be.

All behaviour is communication.

If your anxious child is rude, what does that tell you? Does it mean that they are rude little ingrates, or does it mean that they were protecting themselves or having a fight response to feeling overwhelmed?

If your bright child yells at you for asking about her exam mark, what does that tell you? Is she a moody teenager, or does it mean she is ashamed and angry with herself, does she have a fixed mindset?

Talk to your child about what is going on for them. Listen carefully and with the intention of understanding them.

For the young child, talk about the mistake, do not talk about who they are. “You spilled the milk, that wasn’t great behaviour. Please get the kitchen cloth and I will show you how to clean it up.” This response is about the action and it is teaching how to fix a mistake. Don’t fall into the trap of calling them names, this just makes it truer.

For the older child, talk about what they did. Have this talk when they do well and when they don’t do so well. “What did you do. I see that you spent time studying, so you have that waxed. How did you study the work? Can we think about other ways of doing that bit for next time?” Make it about action.

We can all do something if we can see that something can be done. When we stop seeing our part in the mistake or the event, or that we have some power over ourselves to effect the outcome, then we are STUCK.

In summary,

The danger of not knowing how to fall and fail, for children who are already struggling with learning difficulties or medical difficulties, is that they get STUCK.

Children need to be taught how to be brave and how to fail. Because part of failing is getting back up. The 4 Tips I have shared here with you, are actually not tips about failing at all. They are tips on how to get back up.

Isn’t that the most powerful thing you can do for a child.

The trouble with avoiding falling and failing is that you miss rising and succeeding.

If you are brave enough, often enough, you will fall,” Brown says. She goes on to explain that you can take the risk away, but then you are not being brave anymore. Falling and failing is inevitable. So we need to teach our kids how to get back up so that falling isn’t devastating.

So rather than barricading the house and building a safety bubble for them to walk around in, why don’t we teach them some skills.

Be brave mom, your kids need you to show them how to get back up!

 Author: Lauren Edmunds – Copyright

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