Learning from Failure
I was always a pretty good student. I was fortunate ---I didn’t have to work too hard to get decent grades. But during my first semester in college, I received a wake-up call. I handed in a paper in an English class and got an F! I stormed into the professor’s office, outraged, and asked him why he failed me. He looked at me, stone-faced, and said, “Because it’s a piece of garbage!”. I was shocked. He let me work on it and re-submit it. I spend hours re-writing that paper and ultimately received a B. I realized that if I wanted to do well in college, I was going to have to put in a lot more elbow grease.
Parents wonder—how do I motivate my children to do their best and work hard in school? Should we focus on grades? The amount of time they spend doing homework or studying for tests? Make them spend more time reading? What are the ingredients for academic success?
Psychologists point to the development of “mindsets”, which are enduring beliefs about oneself and the world, that are important in how we approach life’s responsibilities. The parental task—How do we help our kids develop an effective and positive approach to learning?
Today’s educational outlook nurtures self-esteem. We want our children to feel good about themselves. Everyone who plays on the soccer team receives a trophy just for being “on the team”. Kids get high fives for showing up. We want everyone to feel like a “winner” even if they lack the ability or a strong work ethic. Is self-esteem the secret sauce of success?
Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology at UC-San Diego, suggests that helping children see their abilities and performance as something that will change over time, paves the way for coping with obstacles when they arise.
Her take home message--learning how to handle challenges, setbacks, and failure may be more important in the long run than hitting a home run.
Kyla Haimovitiz, a psychology professor at Stanford, recommends that parents focus on how they react to their children’s failures and letdowns, as well as their achievements. When Sarah comes home with a D on a math test, what do we say and do?
“Don’t worry Sarah, you’ll do better next time” or “Perhaps math is not your strong suit. You’re so good at English” may not help her learn from her experience. A different message— “So, why do you think you struggled on this test?” or How do you think you might prepare differently for the next exam” may help her consider what she can learn from this experience.
How Moms and Dads react to their children’s frustration, disappointments, setbacks, and failures set the stage for how children will respond to these experiences. Do they blame the teacher or the coach? Do they throw down their tennis racquet in disgust? Do they throw in the towel? Or do they reflect on what they can learn and do differently tomorrow? They learn from us.
So what can parents do?
- Consider how you will respond to your children’s school challenges. Don’t jump in and try to “fix” the problem. Help them find their own age appropriate solutions to their problems.
- What message do you want to give your children? I was very concerned about my children developing intellectual honesty and curiosity. I wanted them to question and consider what they learned in school. I rewarded those qualities and made far less of grades.
- Nurture independence. Finding tools to answer life’s question is far more useful than just getting the answer to a specific question. That requires creativity, perseverance, and resilience.