Failure Builds Character

As we raise little vessels of energy, we are hard-wired to want them to succeed in all things. Why else would we cheer when they eat food, dance when they take their first steps, and yes, clap like crazy people when they use the potty? Success feels good, and there’s nothing like the prideful smile of a child. But all it takes is an embarrassing tantrum to alert you that you have never let your kiddo fail. Ever. This is what happened to me.failurefirstbite

It was, of course, with my first born. We had let him win constantly, and about eight years ago, we were excited to bring home our first Wii game. When we had a friend over for some cordial Wii tennis, and she legitimately beat my three-year-old, he waddled his little tushy up to the TV and smacked it with the Wii remote, pouting from his loss. Yep. My husband and I had a sore loser. This was our first wake-up call, that maybe we shouldn’t let him win in everything. Perhaps some loss would teach him a few things.

Because of this event, I make a conscious effort to let my kids fail in ways that are age appropriate and won’t physically hurt them. Life is full of losses, it’s what you do after a loss that matters. This is hard for me to admit. I’m a little competitive by nature, but I try to keep a good perspective after a loss. Be it a sporting event for myself, a sporting event for my kids, a project that went south, or a lesson plan that didn’t do what I thought it would. I learn from it all, and now I want the same for my kids.failurepullup

Prepared Losses and Knowing When to Win

Some losses can be anticipated, and those are great opportunities for conversation. When my oldest began athletics, accepting a loss was built into the whole sports package. Losses make coaches and participants shift their approach and refine their skills. Loss actually makes athletes better at their craft. This type of thinking started to bleed over into school with his student council. My son prepared a speech, gave it, and was elected by his classmates the first year he tried. However, he did the same prep for year two, and he was not elected by his peers. I was so relieved that we had gone over both scenarios. I was able to prepare him for a loss by saying, “Now, remember, you had your chance on student council, and some new people may want to try. It’s okay if you don’t get elected.” When he didn’t, he was kind of bummed, but he moved on to try other things. (As a “mama bear”, I wanted to go into his class and ask them why they couldn’t see that he was perfect for the job, but I had to practice what I preached.)

failurecambasketballBeating your kids in board games or neighborhood sporting events can be tricky. My grandmother loved us so much, but if we played cards, she would take no mercy. I appreciated that. It was so fun to hear her smack talk during a card game. If my parents took my sister and me on in basketball or tennis, we all tried our hardest to win. I took pleasure in the fact that they were trying their best. I learned from my folks, and now my kids understand that when they step into a Wii boxing or Wii bowling tournament in the basement, I’m bringing my “A game” for a full on competition no matter what their ages are at the time.


Unprepared Losses

When these unexpected failures sneak up on us, there is never a better opportunity for learning and growing, but it’s not so easy to see. I have an amazing friend that says a prayer of thanks every time something goes wrong with her house or her car, because she knows she’ll grow from each obstacle. It’s a wonderful way to live, and I have tried to do that recently. When my children encounter this type of failure, it’s harder to explain. Unprepared failure is any time they were late with an assignment, their friend got mad at them, they performed unfavorably in a game, or they broke an incredibly expensive tablet. Okay, that last example was a bit specific, but it still hurts. These losses are not catastrophic, but they are failures that help them learn that the world does not revolve around them. I try to set them up for success in so many ways, but as they get older, I want the responsibilities to fall on them. They need to struggle in order to experience perseverance in the simplest form. failurejamI see this with my high school students. Those that have had to be problem solvers early on are excellent in a situation where a computer fails, or their partner is gone for a team presentation. If kids get a glimpse of disappointment, it will help them build character when failure could get big. It’s where we see what we are made of. I teach creative writing, and famous authors will tell you that if you want to really know your character, put them in a traffic jam, a slow line at Walmart, or a family feud. I think the same goes for kids and failure. We have to let them experience this so that they can build some life skills for the future.

Letting our babies fail is hard, but it is important if we want them to grow into problem solvers. It’s better for them and better for our world. So cheer them on when they succeed and wipe their tears when they fail, but let it all happen organically. failurekidsThat’s how we grow promising adults who don’t lose their minds when things don’t go their way. How about your family? How do failures play out? What do you do to make them opportunities for learning? We’d love to read your comments. Email me at

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