I was particularly saddened by the story reported in Daily Mail UK of Samantha MacDonald a 20-year-old University student who jumped to death because she felt that her exam results (2:2) weren’t good enough. It set me thinking about how much resilience our children have developed to deal with disappointments, setbacks or what they perceive as failure.
Disappointments are not a one size fit all and children tend to perceive failure beyond the realm of just academics. For one child failing to make the guest list for the “A-list” party may hit harder than you can ever imagine. For another it could be not making the football or swimming team, getting turned down for an internship, a relationship that is not working out and on and on. Whatever the case, when expectations are not met, whether the expectations come from us, from teachers, from peers, or from our kids themselves, the usual conclusion applied is that the kid failed. Perception of the magnitude of devastation by the child of the unfavorable outcome usually determines their reaction and this varies with age, level of maturity, self-confidence, and mental disposition.
Parents today seem willing to go to great lengths, employing all manner of tactics (over indulgence, bribery, pushing, shaming etc.), to protect their kids from the pain of dashed expectations. The reality, however, is that for our kids to develop the key characteristics they need to succeed, such as coping skills, emotional resilience, creative thinking, and the ability to collaborate, they need to learn how to deal with setbacks.
Me think it’s time to change tactic and the starting point is how we view and mirror to our children what failure is or is not. Disappointments, failure or setbacks are a reality of life. It is a possible outcome of any action taken. If you throw a dart it may or may not hit the bulls eye. In the same way, our child may have practiced hard, done all she needed to do and still not be cast in the school play.
I like Tony Robbins suggestion that the word “failure” be substituted with “outcome” or “result”. While this may not immediately change how the child or we feel, it immediately changes the perception about the incident from negative to neutral. This concept is really useful for our kids because they are then able to see the incident as a result or outcome of choices made or actions taken. When this happens, it’s easier to identify what went wrong (including having unreasonable expectations), what could have been done differently and make the necessary change to get the desired result. By helping our child think through the situation, analyze it, and figure out the next step, we become an ally, a mentor and a parent who affirms our child’s worth even when he / she has made a mistake.
On a final note, please let’s remember that as parents we are to love our children unconditionally. We love and value them just because they are, not because of how they make us feel, what they do or their achievements. When our child feels that love in spite of his or her mistakes, they are less likely to internalize their “failures” as part of their identity, and more likely to be able to bounce back from setbacks, make the necessary corrections and forge ahead to success.