Helping Children Learn to Fail

As parents, we all want to see our kids succeed, but in reality it might be equally important to teach them how to fail. Almost no one is completely successful at something the first time around. We have to practice something over and over in order to master the skill. Unfortunately, we sometimes give children the unrealistic expectation that they should just be good at everything. If our goal is resilient children who are capable and curious, we need to support them in developing true self-confidence. This kind of self-confidence can come from being good at something that requires real effort. This often involves many failed attempts during the journey and it’s important to help children learn to get through though those failed attempts and still feel good about themselves.

Allowing children the freedom to fail doesn’t come naturally to most parents. We tend to want to swoop in and fix things, but stepping back and letting them stumble from time to time, while encouraging their efforts, will actually help them develop a growth mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck, researcher and author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Dweck, 2006) discusses children who actually seem to love failure. She discovered early in her career that when presented with something very challenging, some people seem to get very excited by the challenge while others are overwhelmed and simply give up. She and her colleagues have devoted much of their research to uncovering exactly what the difference is between people who react to challenge in these very different ways. The children who turned failure into a “gift” that allowed them to get smarter became her role models. They didn’t even see their unsuccessful attempts as failures, they just thought they were learning (Dweck, 2006). The question of how they got this way became the driving force behind her research.

Her research has since lead her to categorize two different mindsets. Some people have what she calls a fixed mindset, and she believes they are trained in this from an early age. These children, and later, adults have an urgency to prove themselves over and over. They feel that they need to be successful in every attempt so that people will value them. Dweck describes their lives, “every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character.” (Dweck, 2006)

The other type of mindset is called the growth mindset and is based on the belief that your basic qualities can be developed through hard work. If these people think about something that they can’t do…they tend to add the word YET. These are people who believe that with more work they will be able to do this thing, whatever it is. This mindset creates a passion for learning. Dweck describes their lives when she explains that these people don’t “waste time proving over and over how great they are when they could be working to get better.” (Dweck, 2006)

Her research, and others like it, has demonstrated repeatedly that people’s ideas about the value of risk and effort come from their mindset, and that this mindset can be influenced by the type of praise a child is given. To help a child develop this growth mindset, it’s important for parents and caregivers to pay special attention to the fourth step in the 4 Steps to Success GGK Daily Do. Children who are praised for their efforts and not just their successes are children who develop this growth mindset. They are not afraid of difficult challenges in life and see them as opportunities to get smarter. Growing this type of mindset in our children creates people who can convert life’s setbacks into future successes…this seems to be at the heart of resilience. E-parenting, Character Builders, Play by Play or Talk it Up, along with the 4 Steps to Success are really important tools to use no matter the age of the child, starting from those very earliest of days with babies and toddlers as they explore the world around them.

Clinical Psychologist Jamie Howard, shares the following tips for helping older children develop this type of resilience. (Howard, 2015)

  1. When you see that your child is struggling or having a hard time, empathize with him. Be sure not to brush off his feelings. Try using language like “I know you’re really disappointed and that you wanted to do better.”
  2. Explain to children that everyone fails and offer a story about a time that you yourself failed. You can model for your child how to handle frustration and disappointment. Remember, kids are always watching and taking cues from parents.
  3. Look at failure as a chance to teach your child a lesson about resiliency. Talk through what went wrong and use problem solving skills to come up with a plan for what to do next time.
  4. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Remind your child that they can try again and use this failure as a learning experience.

There is so much pressure on people today to be the best. It’s important that we let people know that failures will sometimes happen and that’s okay. Let’s think parallel process for a minute. Supervisors who support Home Visitors…Home Visitors who are supporting parents…parents who are supporting their children…we all have to help one another remember that trying something new takes courage, especially when we know we might not get it right the first time. Let’s support the journey and the effort and not just the successes in children and adults alike. Any of the above recommendations are applicable to the adults in your life too. We may not be great at this yet…but we will be eventually!

If you are interested, here’s a link to a short video clip that talks about some of the research on praise and mindset in a very engaging and understandable manner.

As always, feel free to email any topic suggestions or questions to . Be sure to add Great Vine ideas to the subject line.

Works Cited

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballentine Books.

Howard, J. M. (2015, November 30). PBS Parents Expert Tips & Advice: Teaching Children It’s Okay to Fail. Retrieved from

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