Why I Celebrate When My Kids Fail

It's time they learn how it feels.

It’s the final heat of the 2018 SA Poetry Slam competition. I’d been waiting for this moment all year; the chance to get through the State finals and compete in the National final in Sydney. It was the one thing I wanted more than anything; the one major thing I had been working toward for months.

I’m standing before the crowd about to perform my two-minute spoken word poem, feeling more nervous than usual; the pressure of this performance expanding in my chest until it becomes hard to breathe.

I begin, but I’m not focused enough. I stumble. Pick up again. Trip over. Stop. My mind goes blank.

OMG what the hell comes next?

Panic face. (Image: Getty)

Silence. Everyone is staring at me. Fear. Panic. I’m on the verge of losing it, big time. Somehow, I manage to find my place and continue to fumble through but my confidence is shot. I mess it up about a gazillion more times before I reach the end of the poem.

Epic. Fail.

That night, shame permeates into every cell of my body; into every dark corner of my mind. I’m mortified, angry, disappointed, gutted, and terrified at the thought of going home to my kids asking how I went; no longer able to hide the truth of what a total loser I really am.

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The failure eats away at me and I’m left with a choice: allow this to ruin me, or allow this to teach me.

I'll just be under here for the rest of my life. (Image: Getty)

There was a recent article in Wall Street Journal on universities in America running courses to help teach students about failure, claiming students “need help understanding that stumbles are inevitable, and even valuable, parts of growing up.”

It claims students aren’t being taught how to cope with failure, and universities have taken it upon themselves to teach failure resistance through openly discussing failure, writing about failure, posting their “Best Fail Ever” stories, and handing out certificates that give permission for students to fail but “still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent, human being.”

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Much of the philosophy of these universities is based around the teachings of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and renowned TED speaker.

Brené’s research on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy is recognised worldwide, with her latest book, Rising Strong, being precisely this; a book dedicated to failure and the process of falling, and rising.

I still have self-worth. (Image: Getty)

Brené teaches the importance of reframing failure as learning and is so passionate about this concept being taught to students that she’s developed online classrooms such as Daring Education and Dare to Lead where educators can learn the skills to teach resilience in their students. There is also Fail Forward, the world’s first failure consultancy agency, teaching people and organisations how to “fail intelligently” -- the foundation of their teaching also based on the principles taught by Brené Brown.

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It seems the concept of teaching failure is gaining a steady momentum -- but should it be left to universities to teach our children how to fail, or should we, as parents, be equipping our children with these life skills before they reach their adult years?

We’ve all seen that kid; the one who has to win at board games, the one who can’t deal with not winning the prize, the one who cries when she doesn’t receive the award, the one who melts down because he didn’t come first in the race, the one who throws a tantrum when not picked to play the lead in the musical production even though she can’t hold a tune for her life.

These are the kids whose parents protected them from experiencing negative emotions; Helicopter Parents with well-meaning intentions who inadvertently stunted the emotional development of their children in bubble-wrapping them from the hard stuff.

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From life-lessons critical to their growth -- challenge, discomfort, failure. The kids who become adults programmed to believe they will always succeed; indeed, expect they will always succeed. The ones who have no ability to cope the moment they inevitably don’t succeed.

We need to teach our kids it’s okay to fail; to not be afraid of allowing them to fail and watching them fail.

When we shield them from experiencing these negative emotions we miss the opportunity to teach them life skills necessary to their development.

It’s important they learn how failure feels; the disappointment, the frustration, the shame. They need to experience these feelings -- to put words to them, talk about them, give them a voice. To learn not to be afraid, but to get comfortable with these feelings so they recognise failure later in life; that it’s not the end of the world but something we have the capacity to pick ourselves up and carry on from.

My life is over. (Image: Getty)

We need to teach them how to process their negative emotions and work through them; how to overcome these feelings and thus build within them a resistance to failure.

To teach them the difference between -- I am a failure and I failed, but that’s okay -- so they understand their worth isn’t based on their rate of success or failure but they are enough, regardless of the outcome.

When we don’t allow our kids to fail, when we protect them even with the best of intentions, we do a massive disservice in their development, especially in the emotional regulatory processes of the brain, critical to establishing logical reasoning and decision-making later in life.

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We send them out into the world unprepared for inevitable failure and unequipped to handle the negative emotions that come with it. Rather than get up, brush the dirt from their knees and try again, understanding failure is part of life, they immediately give up and often lapse into depression, stuck in feelings of shame and unworthiness.

If we protect kids from failure, we do them a massive disservice. (Image: Getty)

Undoubtedly, universities teaching our kids failure resilience can only be a good thing; changing the perception of failure from a negative experience to an opportunity to learn and grow will only reap positive repercussions.

But in saying that, we have the opportunity to teach our kids failure simply through having the courage to own our stories of failure. To overcome our shame, practice our resilience, talk about the ways we have fallen and allow them to watch as we brush the dirt from our knees and get up again.

It’s here, in our most difficult moments, that they learn the most.

As for me -- what did I choose that night? To allow my failure to teach me.

And then I went home and taught my kids what it looks like to fall, and rise again.