The gift of failure


Imagine a world without Harry Potter’s magic. 

And yet it took more than a dozen publisher rejections, or “failures,” before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published. Years later, the Potter franchise has raked in more than $7.7 billion dollars. 

Some failure! 

That one little word packs a negative punch for many of us. We don’t like thinking about letting people down, giving up, losing or shame.

Failure, however, when approached with perspective, can also lead to profound learning, personal growth and even sweeter successes.  

In fact, experts argue that parents play a critical role — not only modeling how to bounce back from life’s inevitable disappointments, but also in getting out of the way, so their kids can experience life’s ups and downs and do the same.

Seeing the value 

For many people (parents and kids alike), the thought of failure sparks fear and anxiety. 

Children’s mental health specialist Lisa Hansen — a counselor for Rosemount Public Schools and a mother of three kids, ages 11 to 18 — said fear of failure plays a big role in the anxiety epidemic facing our world. 

“It’s a fear of ‘What if I’m not good enough?’” she said. 

Without a healthy dose of fear and risk-taking, however, it’s impossible to achieve goals and perhaps even find personal fulfillment. For kids, fear of failure can lead to never trying anything new, or losing opportunities by waiting for everything to be perfect. 

“Everyone experiences (failure), and it doesn’t define who you are or cross out your successes,” Hansen said. “It’s better to try things and find out what you are/are not good at, what you enjoy/don’t, than to be too afraid to try anything because it might not go well. That’s part of discovering who you are.” 

In our society, it’s easy to celebrate success stories. But we somehow ignore the grueling hours of trial and error that lead up to those accomplishments. 

Basketball legend Michael Jordan is open about his own failures: “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.”

In other words, sometimes it’s only through experiencing multiple failures that we can arrive at our most desired achievements. 

Modeling perseverance

Parents are among the best teachers for helping kids manage the pain and shame of failure. 

Hansen recommends talking openly with children about mistakes — not just triumphs. Parents also can model how to persevere when things don’t go their way in life. 

“Kids pick up a lot on how their parents respond to failure — and are watching,” Hansen said “How do their parents handle mistakes? Can they cope, learn about it and move forward?”

Ashley Modrow, a mother of two and assistant principal at Valley View Middle School in Bloomington, strives to emphasize curiosity and discovery, rather than positive outcomes, to reduce the fear of failure among students and her own kids, too.

“I have learned that if we, as adults and role models, can provide opportunities for failure — and opportunities to reflect and learn from failure — our children will continue to take risks, be curious, engage in new experiences and grow,” she said. 

Lauren Anderson, a mother of three from Savage, said the true meaning of failure is giving up after one false start.

“The important thing to teach kids is they might not be able to do something yet, but it certainly does not mean they will never be able to do it,” she said. “Success is the process of continuing to try something until one is able to accomplish it.”

Resist the rescue

But let’s be honest: The struggle is real. Toddlers and grade-schoolers aren’t exactly the most patient beings, or the most graceful losers either. 

And our consumer culture of instant gratification makes it easy for all of us to get distracted from our goals or move onto the next thing. Few of us like to wait or feel repeatedly frustrated by adversity or inferiority. And we parents really don’t like watch our kids suffer emotional or physical pain. 

Here’s the thing, though: Our children’s earliest years actually call for some of the most intensive failure coaching we’ll ever do. 

“Our urge is to protect kids more when they are young, but the stakes are the lowest then,” Hansen said. “Friends are forgiving of mistakes. Grades are not tied to graduation or college admission. Procrastination does not lead to long-term consequences.”

During the preschool and elementary years, kids are most open with us about what’s going on with them — and they’ll actually accept some parental coaching. In the teen years, parents have less influence and the failures cause deeper wounds.

“As kids get older, the stakes get higher, and coping is easier to do when those skills are already in place,” Hansen said. “If kids haven’t experienced any failures until they are teens or young adults, how do they cope?” 

Shielding kids doesn’t allow them to develop grit and resilience, according to Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult.

“[If we] laid out their entire path for them and have avoided all pitfalls or prevented all stumbles for them, kids don’t develop the wise understanding that success comes only after trying and failing and trying again (grit) or the thick skin (resilience) that comes from coping when things have gone wrong.” 

Mandy Marx Robbins, a mother from Mankato, feels failure is necessary for kids to build self-reliance and persistence.

“Learning how to deal with failure when you have a soft place to land (supportive parents) is better than growing up shielded from failure,” she said “The real world will slap sheltered kids in the face.” 

Empowering kids

You really can’t protect your kids from disappointments, such as not being invited to a birthday party or a special outing; being picked last for a team/game; being hit or picked on by another kid; or getting a poor grade on a project that took a lot of work.

In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, kids need to know: “Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.”

Other character-building experiences for kids, according to the experts, can include coming in dead last at something; not making a varsity team; deeply regretting saying or doing something they can’t take back; having a fender bender or car stall; breaking something valuable (and having to take responsibility for it); receiving detention; and even getting fired from a job. 

Injustices, though not failures, call for coping skills, too, including having an event canceled because someone else misbehaved or being blamed for something they didn’t do.

Parents play an important role in helping kids face the pain and move through it by truly listening, and by encouraging healthy coping strategies, such as taking a walk or run (or a shower or bath), reading, drawing or visiting with a friend. Parents also can help kids picks themselves back up to try again, think of ways to fix their mistakes or maybe even decide when the time is right to move on. 

Jeff Grabow, a father of four from Farmington, tries to help his kids look at failures as building blocks, not discouraging obstacles. 

“If you realize that failure is part of the learning process — and will make you better than before — there is a great amount of power in that,” he said. “It is all about your perspective.” 

Tim Klemz, a father of three from Minnetonka, agrees: “Failure is an important part of the process of learning and growing up — almost more so than success. It means learning one way not to do something, and trying again.” 

In the wise words of President John F. Kennedy: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

Laura Ramsborg is a freelance writer, mother of three daughters and recovering perfectionist from Bloomington. Contact her at [email protected].