Updated: Nov 8, 2021
Many children I work with express they are deeply stressed about academic achievement. These children place nearly impossible demands upon themselves, and tell me that getting anything less than an "A" in school is unacceptable. They say they don't know what they would do if they received so much as a "B." The stress and worry are real, and corrode children's sense of self-worth.
When children tie their internal worth or value to external accomplishments, they tend to be in for a roller coaster of emotions. When their report cards report "straight As," they report feeling good about themselves and believe they are good enough. However, when they don't get the grades they'd hoped for, they report feeling that they are a failure. By placing their value outside of themselves, they create a rocky sense of self-worth that can quickly change from day-to-day.
Making mistakes, failing, losing, adversity - these are building blocks of growth and learning. Kids become terrified of what will happen if they make mistakes, but denying kids of these experiences can actually do them a disservice. I'm here to tell them that they will make mistakes; they will have challenges. These mistakes and challenges do not define them, but, instead help them grow. Without them, they're losing critical experience and practice toward successfully navigating discomfort, building agency, and developing autonomy.
Many parents want to save their children from the disappointment and heartache that may accompany mistakes, but denying kids of those experiences can actually be a disservice. Through difficult times, children learn to work through challenges, and become more resilient.
By shifting focus from an identity of failure toward what can be learned from mistakes, we can be helpful guides in children's growth. In fact, mistakes generally teach us more than our successes. Rather than attempting to remove discomfort by eliminating hardship, or setting an expectation for perfection, instead, help your child to non-judgmentally review the difficult experience to gain understanding about where things went wrong, or didn't go as planned. This gives them tools to more effectively work through future challenges.
So, how can we support children through embracing failure?
Non-judgmentally review the "mistake" in question. Help your child assess their struggles, as well as their strengths, thereby, helping them prepare for future challenges.
Model making mistakes. Show your child that, not only are mistakes inevitable, you and they can recover and move forward.
Practice gratitude. This is a wonderful practice to engage the whole family. Focus on what you have and what is going well. This practice tends to build on itself. Overtime, it can become habit to reflect on what you're grateful for.
Make a list. Invite your child to make a list of everything they accomplished that day, i.e. made the bed, helped mom with breakfast, arrived at school on time...
Be more, do less. Shift the focus from productivity and outward accomplishment toward present moment awareness. One of the simplest ways to access the present moment is through the senses. Invite your child to close their eyes and listen to all the sounds around them. If it's really quiet, can they hear the sound of their breath? This is another practice from which the whole family can benefit.
Gain perspective. Help your child to see beyond their mistakes. How will they feel about this situation in 6 months, 1 year, 5 years? Ask them what they would say to a friend in a similar situation.
Children are more than their accomplishments. They are more than their GPA, their athletic abilities, their talents. They have intrinsic value simply because they are alive. This sense of self can be tied to strengths, such as kindness, empathy, creativity, and perseverance. These strengths will be what remain constant and consistent throughout their ever-changing live.
"Have the courage to be imperfect." - Alfred Adler
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