Urging My Kids Not to Fear Failure

My kids fear failure. I’m baffled as to where this phobia came from. Perfectionism is not a trait I possess. My kids see me fail miserably all the time, but I trudge on. I try, try again or let the flop be the outcome. It is what it is.

I make a new recipe and end up scraping the burned contents off the pan. I constantly scramble around my kitchen in a frenzy due to some bombed dinner, but we still eat something.

I attempt a craft with the kids that totally flops—stamps made out of wooden blocks and puffy paint that are too lumpy to make a legible print. “Well that stinks,” I manage as I clean up the mess.

homemade stamp

Homemade stamps made out of puffy paint are actually not FUN!

Sometimes things work out. Sometimes they don’t.

I try to instill this wisdom in my kids, but they’re not buying it. They want immediate satisfaction. I gently push them to try to do their best, to just give it a go even. I’m the least competitive person I know, but sure I want my kids to know their potential. Am I putting pressure on them that I’m not aware of?

Honestly, I hate to see my kid mosey over to the soccer ball like a limp rag doll with all the spunk of a blade of grass. I’m not asking for a goal. I’m not asking for my kid to be the best player. I’d just really prefer that my child not look lifeless.

But I also haven’t mastered that art of parental encouragement. How do other parents get their kids to perform? Is saying, “Try to kick the ball” or “Run” too much? I don’t feel like it’s overbearing.

I find it’s often hard just getting my kids to the “try” stage. My daughter never wants to draw because she thinks the outcome will look terrible. I tell her to practice. How else will she get better?

All summer, my son said he’d dive off the diving board. His dives from the side of the pool looked great. He would do goofy jumps off the diving board but he thought it looked too high to dive from. He was afraid he’d end up doing a belly flop and embarrassing himself. He was afraid to fail.

I tell my kids that everyone fails before they do a good job at something. You never start out at something doing an awesome job at it. It takes time and practice…and failure. That’s not good enough for them.

I constantly set examples. I offered to bring dessert to a friend’s house for dinner: blueberry hand pies. I’ve made them before and they tasted great. I couldn’t believe I made them. When I made them for my friends, one of the pies burst in the oven and the blueberry juice leaked all over the pan, soaking the bottoms of all the pies. These are good friends, so I packed up the pies, took them to their house, and said, “I’m not sure about the pies.” After I tasted them first, I said, “They don’t taste very good.” Everyone politely ate a soggy pie anyway.

blueberry hand pies

A cooking flop you will only see here, oh, and in my kitchen. Had we eaten these at this very moment, they would have been delicious. I just know it.

My son told me at home later they were gross.

I’m just not afraid to fail. I can accept I’m not the best at something, but if it’s important to me, I keep trying until it turns out OK. Maybe my kids are learning from my failures and they don’t want to be a part of it. Maybe they can’t bear the disappointment of soggy desserts and crafts that don’t work.

Of course I must admit one area where I can’t accept failure: parenthood. And I can tell you that I’ve never tried so hard in my life.

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35 Comments

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35 responses to “Urging My Kids Not to Fear Failure

  1. Jonesingafter40

    Those last two lines cinched it. Such a thoughtful post.

  2. Aww, I love those last two sentences. 🙂
    I say just keep doing what you’re doing, and try not to focus so much on them. If they want to try, they will. If we are always pushing them to do things, even things that they show interest in, then technically, we are still the ones who made the decision for them. We are turning their problems into our problems, and trying to solve their problems for them. We want them to succeed (and fail, because that means they are at least trying!), but in order to truly gain from it, it’s best if they do it on their own. It’s hard for me to explain, but I recently read a book that has helped me understand this common battle between parents and children. I’m planning on posting a review of it soon, and I’ll let you know when I do! Extremely loving, well-meaning parents make the mistake of turning our kiddos problems into ones we need to solve for them. I make that mistake all… the… time. It’s hard to see them struggle (or not struggle in this case!) and sit back and watch. I feel your pain completely.

    • I think with us it’s more the case that they don’t try at all. Does the book mention that? You let me know!

      • It does… sort of. It’s mostly about teaching parents to step back and avoid giving unsolicited advice to their children. It’s a strange concept to me, but one that really does make sense. It’s called Parenting with Love and Logic if you have time to give it a go. It’s a quick read and probably at your local library.

        Another blog I read the other day was about the Goldilocks effect, which might have something to do with your kids’ lack of interest in trying certain things. Worth a read! I have a five year old who sometimes is SO competitive and just won’t give up until he wins, wants to master a task over and over and over again (mostly with sports) and then other times refuses to even try. It can be frustrating for sure.
        Here’s the blog post:
        http://lauragraceweldon.com/blog-2/
        Good luck to you and your kiddos!!

  3. Oh, Karen, I love failures! It’s my favorite thing to do. Really. And I too do it a lot. Here’s how I get by.

    We encourage joy through failures. We laugh. We work our hardest to screw something up, make it a game even, do something with such purpose (even not knowing what the heck we’re doing) just to FAIL miserably at it. Together. And then laugh at the silliness of the failed outcome, or celebrate when it works. Seriously.

    Failures bring on successes. Sometimes, but rarely, and that’s okay. But it’s the process of trying things for the first time that is usually the hardest for kids. Before we try (I use that word loosely…we are DO’ers, not try’ers), we ask a pointed question: what’s the absolute worst thing that can happen by our failure? If the answer is not safety-related – or otherwise ruin someone else’s day or infringe upon THEIR safety – then, c’mon let’s give it a go!! It’ll be fun. And we’re always in it together.

    The exhilaration (butterflies, excitement, high-fives) is usually enough to get them to “try” something new. And when failure IS the option? Well, try it a different way next time, since that way obviously didn’t work. It’s about enjoying the outcome no matter what, because they’re always learning SOMETHING by it.

    You know, my 10-yr-old went through the same thing, but it was doing a front flip off the 3-meter platform. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Belly flop. And that hurts, for just a little bit. No death, no blood. Maybe embarrassment. On video. He thought about it, committed, and then I watched amazed as he did it perfectly the first time.

    Two of my favorite lines, and I use a lot on my kids: “If you think you can’t, you’re right. You can’t.” Or… “Try to touch your nose.” And then they DO it. “See? There’s no trying. Only doing.”

    They smile at me when I say these ad nauseum. They know the game all too well. And they choose to play.

    Because childhood AND parenthood is just so blasted fun, isn’t it?

    • Yeah, I’ve tried getting them to think that way: What’s the worst that can happen? But I let them do it in their own time or it’s just no fun for them. They always let me know when they’re ready to try something new. My son finally did dive off the diving board this summer. At the very end of of the season, no less. And he aced it.

      • That’s awesome that he did it! There’s no going back now. Before you know it, he’ll be doing inverse dives off the 3-meter, my personal favorite.

  4. What a great post. I am so incredibly intrigued by this notion – that you must be ok with failure. I desperately want my children to have that quality. I do tend to be a perfectionist – or more realistically a control freak – but it has never stopped me from jumping head first into any and everything. My husband is afraid of failure to the point it paralyzes him. I don’t want my children to live like that – I’ve seen the way Ian has struggled. He’s making strides with my support – taking risks at work and forging ahead with confidence in the projects he believes in.

    I’m sorry I don’t have any advice or answers. When discussing this topic recently, someone recommended the book NurtureShock. I haven’t read it but it seemed interesting.

    • I can’t imagine being that afraid to fail. Boy, I better set my kids up for some failure then. I absolutely think kids need to experience it on some level (and I’m sure mine have) and see that you try something and it doesn’t work out and everything is still OK. You have to start over. You didn’t win the spelling bee (my son had this one, he came close!).

      I certainly get disappointed if it’s something I really wanted, but I try to look at things as a learning experience. I’ve failed a lot I guess!

  5. you had me at “all the spunk of a blade of grass.” i saw it. i know it! and actually i’m over-impressed with you – origami and now blueberry pies! wow. you continue to impress with your ceaseless energy and enthusiastic “trying”. i would made brownies from a box (but put them on a pretty plate from home goods. 😉 ).
    two of my boys have the same fear of failure. they only want to do something if they are the best. i try explaining the same things but they are their own people and we all have our own personalities and struggles. all you can do is just keep trying. 🙂

    • I am not at my best when watching my kids play sports, at least not in my head. It is terribly painful! I think it reminds me too much of myself on any sports field as a kid.

      I admit I’m kind of crafty, but honestly I’m no good at it. I try a lot of things, nothing worthy of blogging about! And I do cook a lot and that tastes quite good, just not when I’m entertaining! I’ve learned to accept it. I love food so I learned early on how to cook what I like. There’s nothing wrong with brownies from a box though.

  6. I wish I had the answer to that. My oldest never seems to try anything new but my younger three are fearless. I encourage them and push gently when they give me talk back. I just want them to try.

  7. I will be a horrible example to my kids. I am so afraid to be embarrassed that I just won’t try anything that may make me look like a fool. Even though sitting in the corner pouting doesn’t make me look super cool either. PB has definitely helped me out of my shell and I have been trying new things. I hope when motherhood comes around (week 20 now, getting closer!), and that’s a BIG new thing, other things will come easier.

  8. May

    The older I get, the less afraid I am of my own embarassment, but I am still paralysed by other people’s (odd, I know). I think it is normal for children to be afraid of being embarassed, because other children are the cruellest judges in anyone’s life. Hopefully with you setting them a good example, building them up for trying and not being overly fussed about whether they succeed or fail (one thing to note – so much fuss was made about all my achievements as a child that for a while I was afraid to try anything new in case I wasn’t as good at it as the other stuff, so it isn’t all about not condemning failure, more about not focusing on success as the constant ideal), they’ll turn out just fine!

  9. Last sentences – perfect! I see this with my gifted students all of the time. It sounds like you are doing exactly what I try to do – and recommend to parents. Letting them see you take risks and “fail”, and handling it well is great modeling for them. The other thing that has helped with my own daughter is to really reward her when she takes risks, even if they don’t turn out the way she hoped. She has become much more willing to try new things as a result.

    • Maybe they don’t see my failures. Maybe they’re not big enough. Maybe I need to do it on a larger scale, a bigger cake maybe? I can see that giant thing flopping on the floor in a slippery mess because I surely cannot frost a two-layer cake.

  10. C’mon now. I actually ate two of those blueberry hand pies and would have had a third if it wouldn’t have made me look like a pig. Make them again, I say!

    • From the guy who knows all about failure–in lawn mowing. Great post by the way. I think you’re just buttering me up for another taco night or a chocolate pie or something.

  11. Steve Jobs failed when he was kicked out of his own company…only to come back and leave a billion-dollar empire. Edison failed so many times it’s a miracle he didn’t give up. Einstein…didn’t he stink at school (and I mean his grades). Our greatest achievements in history, and I could literally go on and on with this list, stand on the shoulders of failures. Failing forward is the only way to success, so Mom, I’d say you’re doing brilliantly teaching those kids to embrace, not fear, the journey.

    • Brilliance from a brilliant writer. Excellent examples. I tried to tell my son about Michael Phelps and how he was scared to go underwater when he was a kid. Now he’s an Olympic champ. My son rolls his eyes, but I know he hears me. 😉

  12. I’m reading a book about failure actually being an opportunity for growth. A chance to analyze what went wrong, and make different choices on the next opportunity. Sounds good, huh? Where was this advice 20 years ago when I needed bolstering from ghastly Thanksgiving disasters or crappy bosses. The good news…is we figure it out. Even the mistakes I made with the kids seemed to have turned out better than I could’ve ever hoped. I love the message in the post. Hope reigns eternal.

    • Yes, unfortunately, I’ve had failures as a mom too. You’re right. I do learn from them. It’s hard not to be bitter about things or wish things in our lives turned out a different way, but everything that happens shapes who we are. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it anyway!

      • Yes, and it’s quite handy if you want to spread a little blame around too. I mean…why shoulder…all the responsibility for bad choices? I have a wooden spoon in the kitchen I blame for my cooking failures.

  13. I can really identify with this post. Encouraging my kids to “try” is sometimes the most difficult thing I have done. My son is an absolute perfectionist. When he does do something, it can all be super-fantastic, but if one little tiny thing is not 100%, he scraps the entire thing. I feel terrible about that. I am not sure where he gets it from. I live with “good enough” every single day. I’m not saying that great, but he doesn’t see it from me. It’s a tough job parenting these little blessings. I just pray and try and know they will do things in their time, when they are ready.

    Great post!
    ~FringeGirl

  14. I am really with you on this. I hate when my kids refuse to try because they are convinced they can’t. Just try!!! Putting in effort and accepting the results is important. I try to explain the only way you will get better is if you try. If convinced, they will often go in half hearted – setting themselves up for failure and thereby reinforcing their fear.

  15. I am with you 100%. I am also a proud and prolific failer and yet me kids are so afraid of failure. maybe it’s the instant gratification of their generation? Not sure – all I know is that your last two sentences resonated so strongly with me. Mind if I share this from my facebook page? It’s about my failings as a parent. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=251094248345601&set=a.221360721318954.48805.219619148159778&type=3&theater

    Love your blog. Thanks!

    • Absolutely. Thanks! I read your latest post and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed as a parent, stuck my tail between my legs, apologized, and shown my kids just how human I really am. Some days I think they can really identify with my shortcomings. 😉

  16. Great post. Yes, it will take a long time for you to know if they’ll get over their fears of failure, but rest easy knowing that you’re doing the best thing you can do: setting example after example. Just keep trudging on and at some point it will sink in!

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