Teaching Kids How To Fail

Everyone fails. It is our ability to adapt and overcome which ultimately determines our success. As professional basketballer and six-time champion, Michael Jordan, famously said: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” We succeed because we fail– and overcome failure. Teaching kids how to fail is necessary in order to teach them how to succeed.


The first step in teaching children about failure is that we must allow them to fail, and then teach them that they can bounce back from failure. This is how we cultivate resilience. If we protect children from failing every chance we get, we deprive them of the opportunity to develop skills necessary to handle failure. And, we will not always be around to shield them. Step back and allow the child the opportunity to experience small failures in life– a wrong answer, for example. 


When they do fail, acknowledge the failure. One thing a lot of well-meaning caregivers get wrong is trying to brush off the failure. Statements like “No big deal” or “You’ll do better next time” are dismissive and invalidate the negative emotions the child is experiencing. Instead, it is important to empathize with what the child is feeling: “I know you really wanted to get into that school.” “You studied really hard for that test. How frustrating to not get the grade you hoped you would.” Show them that you understand why they are upset and that they are totally justified in feeling this way. 


Finally, normalize failure: Let the child know that failure is normal and that it is okay to fail. Failure is an unavoidable part of life and everyone experiences failure at some point in their lives.  Share with the child famous stories of failure. Or, better yet, share a personal failure with the child– how it made you feel and how you handled the failure (or didn’t) in a constructive way.

Once the child has had the opportunity to express their feelings about their failure and once they have accepted that it is okay to fail, you want to teach them that failure is not permanent by problem solving how to move forward after the failure. Have them ask themself the question “How do I move forward from here?” or “What could I have done differently” and provide suggestions, if needed. (See Also: SMT Blog Article “Stop Telling Kids They’re ‘Smart’” for more on teaching kids to adapt and overcome.) 


Caregivers can also build in “opportunities to fail” as a form of incidental learning. Teach the child how to complete an activity, like washing the dishes, and then have them complete the activity themselves. Inevitably, they will get something wrong, or fail part of the exercise. Rather than reprimand or chastise them for their mistake, use it as a teachable moment to acknowledge what they did wrong and show them how to fix it, maybe even adding in your own personal dishwashing failure story.


In teaching children that it is okay to fail and how to move forward after a failure, we teach them how to succeed.