Failure - What it means to Children and How to Help Children Flourish - Papers & Essays



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Failure - What it means to Children and How to Help Children Flourish


We are all bound to experience failure many times in life. Failure can be devastating, but it need not be a long-term hindrance to having a successful, flourishing life. Parents and caregivers can model ways to handle failure. This paper deals with ways caregivers help children improve or learn character traits and build strengths to meet life’s challenges.

Keywords: character traits, strengths, failure, success, flourish, optimistic, engage, resilience, relationships, social agility, motivated, meaning, self-control, achievement

Failure hurts. Is there anyone reading this paper who hasn't experienced failure? Babies insist on trying new things and often fail. It seems to be human nature to expand our abilities even though we meet failure numerous times in the process. Furthermore, our world is so competitive, and so much is expected of each of us that some failure is inevitable.

Definitions and ramifications

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines failure as: "lack of success, unsuccessful person, thing or attempt." Success is defined as: "favorable outcome, accomplishment of what was aimed at, attainment of wealth or fame or position." Flourish is defined as "prosper." To a child failure can be inability to ride a bicycle, toss the ball into the basketball hoop, not being chosen for the school play, break-up of a relationship, low grades, not making the team or not getting the part time job. The ramifications include emotional responses which affect self-esteem, but these ramifications need not be destructive in the long run. As caregivers, we model how to deal with failure, and we play a part in how each child in our care learns to handle setbacks and moves on to flourishing life experiences.

Traits of the successful-those who flourish

Paul Tough and Martin Seligman describe character traits which can be improved or learned, enabling the child to flourish. Here is the list.

  1. Positive emotions. The person is optimistic and uses more positive words than negative.

  2. Ability to engage and resilience. The person engages by using his strengths so that time vanishes and he persists through difficulties.

  3. Forms relationships and has social agility. The person involves others in life activities and has good people skills.

  4. Motivated by meaning. The person views what he does as serving something bigger than his own self-interest.

  5. Self-control. Controlling distracting urges has been shown to be more important than IQ in academic advancement.

  6. Enjoys achievement. The person discovers his strengths and uses them to reach long term goals.

Both authors discuss the strengths that a person needs to live well. They include: bravery, fairness, wisdom, hope, integrity, kindness, love, humor, zest, appreciation of beauty and social intelligence*1 *2.

Caregiver "to do" list-ways adults who care for children can make a difference

  1. Show that you love the child unconditionally.

  2. Model how you deal with failure.

  3. Learn what is possible for children at different age levels. Have realistic expectations.

  4. Help the child analyze what happened and focus on long-term goals, which may lead him to try again or move in another direction more attuned to his strengths and interests. Explain that the world doesn't come to an end because of that failure.

  5. Encourage activities where the child's talents and interests bring success. Teach the child to use his positive strengths and learn from the failure.

  6. Help the child deal with his emotion, be it "joy, pride, guilt, shame, sadness or a host of other emotions," by letting the child talk about how he feels or help him find the words to express them*3. Anne Karpf wrote that there is a moment of mutual sharing when the parent acknowledges the child's emotions. "The child feels, 'I suffered, mother (or father) knows I suffered. I'm disappointed that mother hasn't made the world where I get everything I want, but we've both survived, and I've learned and grown that bit through it*4.'" The parent can describe incidents when he/she failed.

  7. Give real life examples of people who experienced great failure but became successful in the world.

  8. Help the child develop supporting social relationships, friends and caregivers who demonstrate that they care and share happy ventures.

  9. Show faith; demonstrate optimism which can become contagious*3 *4.

Negative strategies

To parents failure is such a toxic word that it is like one of George Orwell's thought crimes says Karpf*4. Parents and caregivers may err on the side of over-protection or false expectations. Here are some examples;

  1. "You can" encouragement. Like the little red engine that made it up the hill in the child's story, parents persist to insist, "You can." But what if the child can't? I remember a friend whose son wanted to be a mechanic whereas his dad wanted him to go to college, maybe become a lawyer. The boy's natural curiosity led him to learn to fix small appliances around the house but the father persisted to insist that the boy choose academic high school courses. The son failed several subjects and quit school. Later he returned to follow his interests.

  2. Over praise for intelligence or effort. The child who is constantly praised for high intelligence suffers greatly when he fails an exam or some other intellectual pursuit believing that he wasn't smart after all. He feels helpless - his best source of recognition has vanished. Praising the child for great effort, can backfire also. When that child fails, he may believe that he just didn't try hard enough, whereas winning may have been out of his control. Self-esteem flourishes when parents are around to notice a child's significant success at the moment of the success.

  3. Parents projecting their idea of failure onto the child. Johnny may like to play the piano, but his father wants Johnny to shine as a basketball player. To the father Johnny's lack of interest in becoming a star player, may be considered a failure.

  4. Saying "It doesn't matter." is hurtful. The failure is important to the child. It matters!

  5. Setting up your child for success. Some parents finagle their child to avoid failure, direct them to a school curriculum, which they believe will be easy for the child or finagle privileges so that the child doesn't have to do all the work that is expected of his peers. The child may leave school with a diploma but may not be equipped for a job or the complications in life.

  6. Rewarding to make the child feel good. Some parents compensate for the disappointment of failure by giving a sweet or a present. That practice doesn't teach the child to handle failure. Sometimes the parent has to say,"Life is like that. Some pains are damned awful. What can you do next?"

  7. Blaming the child or someone else. Some parents are so involved with their child that they project their disappointment onto the child or someone else (coach, teacher) and pass the blame. This does not help the child come to terms with the failure and learn from the experience*4.

Observing Tyson

Tyson won my heart when I was assisting the teacher in the prekindergarten class at Harbourfront School. He matured so much in one year. "Teacher, do this. Teacher, help me." the four-year-old would say in the playground when he wanted a push on the swing or in the classroom when he couldn't arrange the pencil in his hand to trace the alphabet on his tablet. He could be assertive in that good way, but he also bullied other kids, particularly on the playground. He'd grab a ball from a classmate who was aiming the ball toward the basketball hoop, push others away to climb the ladder and gloat, waving his leg to keep other kids from following him up onto the platform. The teacher would take him aside and remind him to tell himself to wait his turn. Sometimes the kids ganged up to block Tyson's attempt to be first on the ladder, and on those occasions I noticed that Tyson would fall onto the ground, pouting or professing that he'd been injured. The teacher would help him up, inspect the "injury" and tell him that his friends didn't like his pushing; she'd remind him to tell himself to wait his turn. When he did wait, the teacher was quick to notice and say, "Tyson, I'm proud of you. You waited for your turn."

Once when they were playing inside, Jimmy, one of his classmates, was building a castle with Legos. Tyson got a box of Legos and began to build a similar castle, but he couldn't get the small plastic blocks to interlock. He'd hammer one against another, throw down a red block and try a blue block. Finally in frustration he dumped the box of blocks onto the floor and threw some of the blocks across the room. The teacher put her hand on his arm and told him, "Your fingers haven't matured enough to be able to fit tiny things together. Give yourself some time. It will happen. You have good ideas; you're terrific with the big blocks. Let's clean up these Legos, and then why don't you make a castle out of the big blocks today?"

But Tyson wasn't interested in building with big blocks. Instead he leaned on the table next to Jimmy. I wondered how long it would be until he wrecked Jimmy's castle, but the teacher put her hand on Tyson's shoulder again and tapped him lovingly. That tap was enough to remind Tyson to control his actions. He watched Jimmy, and when the castle was finished he called to me, "Look what we made!" He had found a way to overcome his failure--to join a successful peer, and maybe he was observing how Jimmy managed to fit the blocks together. When Jimmy was ready to move to another activity, he turned to Tyson and said, "Okay, it's your turn. You can play now," and he left Tyson manipulating a toy car around the castle. It seemed to me that Tyson's bullying was a response to a feeling of failure because he lacked manual dexterity--failure which was due to immaturity. Through the teacher's efforts maybe Tyson learned to accept his current limitations, learned to control himself and be patient, developed social skills to make friends--character traits which would bolster his successes through life.


Failure matters to children, but the hurtful and destructive ramifications of a failure need not be long-term. Goals should focus on what is desired for the future. Sometimes failure can't be avoided and children need to express their feelings. They need to be told that such things happen, that his feelings are understood, but that life goes on. Children can improve or learn character traits which enable them to flourish. Caregivers can help the child identify his/her strengths and help him/her employ them in positive ways.

Marlene_Ritchie.jpg Marlene Ritchie
For her writing Marlene Ritchie (née Archer) calls upon her experiences of teaching in the U.S., Japan and China, as a nurse and assisting-founder with Emma N. Plank of the Child Life and Education Program, which addresses the non-medical needs of hospitalized children, as a cofounder of Ritchies, a Toronto auction house, about growing up in a small Ohio town and about being a mother. Currently Marlene is a freelance writer and tutor living in Toronto, Canada. For the past eight years she has contributed to CRN.