Q:"Our 4.5 year-old is struggling with fear of making errors and failing in everything (from drawings to getting dressed). For now, we're trying to focus on praising the process and the efforts made (she's very brilliant and we've realized we may have told her too many times!) and we're reading tons of stories about brave, persevering kids! My question is how to help with the fear of failure."
A: I love this question! At some point in time, most kids develop a fear of failure. And, unfortunately, the pressure for girls (in particular) to be "perfect" at everything is strong. To help our kids develop confidence and good self-esteem, learning not to fear failure is key! And the earlier our children can develop this, the better!
So far, you guys are doing all the right things to manage this. Nicely done! So, for others reading this, take note of the actions already being taken to remedy the situation in the question. A big thumbs-up from me on this!
Now, even though you are already doing some great things, I wanted to make sure I still offered you some more ideas on how to tackle this. I've put together 5 tips for helping your child conquer the fear of failure. Let's jump in!
1. Focus on the Process and Not on Outcomes
Ok, so you're already doing this one, but for everyone else reading, let me explain why this is so important. To put it simply, what you emphasize is what matters. So, if you emphasize that the result is all that matters, then your child may interpret that the end result is... well... what matters.
In the "real" world (i.e. adulthood), the end result is often what's important. This is a lesson that every child must learn eventually. But with young children, focusing on the process and the effort used to accomplish a task is going to help build self-esteem and confidence, motivation, drive, and tenacity. This, in the long run, is going to produce a child that tries harder and is (most likely) more successful in life.
This is a delicate balance, however, because (once again) in the "real world" results are important for success. The key is knowing when & how to praise the process, and when & how to praise the result. That's where we come to the power of language!
Although this might sound like an over emphasis on word-choice, how you word your directives, compliments, critiques, etc., with your child is pretty important. As adults, we are better able to derive someone's meaning, even if they aren't using the best words to express themselves. But kids, especially young kids, are terrible at this! Children usually take things at face-value, meaning that your word-choice is incredibly important.
Let's look at an example to better understand this....
Over the Christmas holiday, my son became upset over something he wanted that he couldn’t have. My husband wanted him to calm down because he couldn't understand what my son was saying due to the crying. My husband continued to say to him, “I don’t care. Stop crying and tell me what happened.” My son continued to cry and continued to try and explain to his dad what occurred. My husband, in turn, continued to repeat the same directive, "I don't care what happened. Stop crying."
Eventually, I got involved. I removed my son from the situation and took him into a private, quiet space. Then, I helped him calm down by instructing him to follow a breathing technique with me. Once calm, I asked him what happened and was able to understand his point-of-view.
Ok, so let's review what happened in this example....
My husband had the right idea, but poor execution. After everything was resolved, we debriefed together on what happened. I explained to him, that telling our son, “I don’t care,” sends the message to our son that his thoughts/feelings are not important. My husband explained to me that he does care about what our son was feeling, but that he couldn’t understand what he was saying due to the crying.
This is where I explained that our four-year-old is too young to understand what my husband "meant." All he knows is what his dad "said." So, if he said, "I don't care," then that's the message our son gets (i.e. Dad doesn't care about my feelings). I explained that using alternative phrasing such as, “I want to understand, but I can’t while you are crying. If you stop crying, then maybe I can help,” sends the message he was intending to give.
So, what's the point from this example? Essentially, word-choice matters! But how can you place an emphasis on the process using your words?
Here are some examples of what NOT to do:
“This painting you made is beautiful.”
“That goal you made today was awesome.”
"Great job getting an 'A' on your test.”
“You got the project finished early! Nicely done.”
“I’m proud of you for getting good grades on your report card.”