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.”
Notice how every praise is focused on what was accomplished. Alternatively, here are some sample phrases that place the emphasis on the process:
“I noticed how hard you worked on this painting. I'm proud of you.”
“I think the best part is that you did your best.”
"You worked so hard during your soccer practices! It really paid-off today!"
“I’m really proud of you for staying focused and doing your best on your project.”
“I’m so proud of you for working hard in school.”
“I know you didn’t pass the test, but I saw how hard you studied, and I am proud of you for that."
Can you see the difference? With the first set of samples, the emphasis is placed on the result. What this does is attach parental praise to a job well done versus attaching the praise to the effort and hard work.
Now, it is important to know that just because you focus your praise on a result, it doesn’t mean that your child will develop a fear of failure. This is simply one of the ways you can help reduce the likelihood that your child develops this fear.
2. Praise Effort not Qualities
This tip is very similar to the first in that, once again, we are focusing on the effort your child is putting in. The difference is what we are trying NOT to focus on. And that is a characteristic (or quality) of your child. Often, when we complement our children, we complement their qualities versus their hard work.
Here are some examples:
“You are such a good artist”
“You are doing such a good job drawing those paint lines”
“You are an amazing goalie”
“You did a great job blocking the ball”
“You are so smart”
“You did a great job studying for this test.”
Hopefully, you can see the difference between praising qualities and praising effort. By praising the process versus praising a specific attribute about your child, you encourage your child to continue engaging in the process to the best of their ability versus always expecting a specific result because they have a specific attribute (i.e. “I go an ‘F’? My parents are wrong. I'm not smart; I'm stupid!”).
3. Teach that Mistakes & Failures are Opportunities for Growth
My next tip is encouraging you to began emphasizing mistakes and failures as an opportunity to grow and learn. In many societies, mistakes and failures are often viewed as disappointments. They have a negative connotation about them. But we are going to change that.
If you want your children to eliminate the fear of failure, you must first create a family culture that embraces failure as an opportunity to grow and learn. When you emphasize that mistakes are part of the process and essential for growth, you start to teach your children that mistakes can be a good thing.
I’m going to share with you a saying my father used to tell me when I was a kid. He used to say:
“I would rather you make 100 mistakes in one day, and they all be different, than you make only 2 mistakes, and they be the same. When you make 100 mistakes, and they are all different, you are growing and learning each time from your mistakes. But if you only make two mistakes, and they are the same, then it means you didn’t grow or learn.”
In this, my dad emphasized repeatedly to me that mistakes are an opportunity to grow. Furthermore, his words encouraged me to make mistakes along the way so that I could continue to learn. I’m not going to say that hearing these words eliminated the fear of failure for me, but it sure did help take out the sting when I made a mistake or failed.
As parents, if we carry this kind of attitude and teach this to our children, we help them view mistakes as “lessons learned” as opposed to “failure.”
4. Teach that Mistakes are Not to be Feared- They're Easily Corrected
Another reason a fear of failure can develop, is when mistakes feel final. Kids can perceive their errors as disastrous, with no solution. As parents, one of the things we can do to help lessen the fear of failure, is to teach that most mistakes can be easily corrected. As such, there is nothing to fear from a mistake.
I’m going to give you another saying my father used to tell me when I was a kid. I use this same saying with my own children. When I made a mistake, my dad would sit me down and grab several pencils from his desk. Showing them to me, he would say:
“Do you see all of my erasers? Do you see how all of my erasers are worn? I make mistakes too, and that's why my erasers are so well used. Mistakes are part of life. The important part is, that when you make a mistake, you do your best to correct it.”
The pencil and eraser are a wonderful metaphor and symbol for mistakes being part of the process AND to illustrate that (most) mistakes can be erased and corrected. Using erasers and pencils as a symbol to your child, consider teaching them that most mistakes can easily be fixed, and as such, there is nothing to fear.
5. Model Failure as an Opportunity for Growth
Finally, we come to my final tip, and (of course!) it has to do with parental modeling. If you read other posts by me, you will know that I am a big believer in social learning. There is so much research to show that our children learn much of their own behaviors from watching us. As much as we want our children to not fear failure, we have to model this ourselves. This means that when we make mistakes, we need to also view our errors as opportunities for growth.
Remember the pencil and eraser story above? It applies here too! My dad would highlight that he makes mistakes, teaching me that no one is immune to failure. Showing your kids that you, too, make errors, models to your child that everyone makes mistakes. And if you can correct your errors, so can they.
Let's dig a little deeper on this one because it is SO important!
Your kids notice EVERYTHING you do. So, when you make a mistake, if you shout, curse, or make negative commentary about yourself, your child is watching. It is not enough for us to teach our children to not fear failure. We must be living this truth ourselves. We have to practice what we preach!
With that said, something that will help you model to your child how to manage mistakes and failure with an attitude of growth is narration. Allow me to explain a little bit more.
I said your kids are always watching you, and are taking your lead on how they should act and react to certain situations. Actions are powerful, but they can be subject to misinterpretation by kids. Kids can't read your mind. They don't know what is happening internally for you.
Narrating your inner dialogue and inner experience for your children helps to eliminate misinterpretation and increases the chance that your kids learn exactly what you want them to learn. It helps your child understand why it is you are acting and reacting in the way that you are.
Let’s look at an example:
A father, while working in the garage, accidentally makes a mistake on a project. He becomes frustrated, grunts, throws the project away, and goes inside.
In this example, we can see that the father is clearly frustrated by the mistake he has made. His child might interpret that his father has failed and has given up. The lesson the child might learn from this is:
When you make a mistake, you should give up.
If the father was to narrate his inner experience, the situation might look more like this:
The father, while working in the garage, accidentally makes a mistake on his project. He becomes frustrated and grunts, “Ugh, I can’t believe I made that mistake!" He then throws his project away and states, "Errgh... I'll toss this out and take a break from it. I’ll try again tomorrow.” He then goes inside.
Pairing this narration with the actions in our example, a child can see that the parent is frustrated about the mistake he made. However, despite his frustration, he is not giving up. He is choosing to take a break and try it again tomorrow, demonstrating perseverance. The lesson the child might learn from this is:
When you make a mistake, you start over and try again.
Modeling and narrating your inner dialogue is a great combination! It's a huge asset to you in teaching your children to view mistakes/failures as opportunities for growth. This, in turn, helps children to learn perseverance and puts the fear of failure to rest.
I hope these 5 tips were helpful to you in learning how to manage the fear of failure with your child. Hopefully, through these tips, your child will learn to embrace the process of making mistakes and how to grow from failure.
That’s all for today. I wish you the best of luck, and as always, Happy Parenting!