“What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling, What if you fly?” – Erin Hanson

I recently read a post asking people what would be the one thing they would do if they knew they wouldn’t fail. It struck me as such a sad idea – that to allow ourselves to truly dream, we needed to eliminate failure from the equation. The mere thought of failing, and the fear and anxiety that it elicits is so all consuming, that it incapacitates many from even starting.

Our society has become so focussed on perfection and getting it “just right” that we are often anything but empathic of those that make mistakes. Our culture of competitiveness pushes the idea of being the prettiest, fastest, funniest, and smartest – to conquer all those in our path. It starts from an early age and continues through to adulthood. It’s not surprising then, that many of us are scared to take any risks if there is even a small possibility of making mistakes or failing. Analysis paralysis takes over and we can begin to live our lives in a state of: “I really want to do XYZ…. but… but…. what if I fail?

We forget that our mistakes and failures do not define us. They are simply hiccups in the fabric of our lives. Some greater than others, yes; but all still mistakes from which we can recover and continue trying. Our mistakes are an opportunity to tweak what we’re doing, or to change directions entirely; to learn from what hasn’t worked and to persevere.

So, I have some different questions: What risks would you take, what dreams would you aim to achieve, even if you knew you might fail along the way? What would you tell yourself if you did fail and how would you encourage yourself to keep on going?

If we can impart to our children (and ourselves) the idea that mistakes are just that – mistakes – but that THEY, as people, are not failures as a result; then we have a greater chance of ensuring that our kids are resilient to the idea of failure. That they can pick themselves up again and again… and again… until they achieve what it is they hope to.

Some ways we can help them include:

  • Fostering a growth mindset
    As Carol Dweck explains; “Learning something new, something hard, sticking to things—that’s how you get smarter”.
  • Praising effort and strategy
    In the book ‘Tough Times, Strong Children’, Psychologist, Dr Dan Kindlon, explains: “You get confidence from overcoming adversity, not from being told how great you are all the time.” However, praising only effort can be a missed opportunity too. If the strategy is wrong, no amount of effort is going to work. If things aren’t working and effort isn’t the issue, assist your child in reviewing the strategy – what is and isn’t working? What options do we have? What are the pros and cons of different solutions? What resources do I need and how do I access them?
  • Encourage children to ask for help and work out who they can ask
    Children need to understand that asking for help from the right people when they’re stuck isn’t being lazy – it’s being resourceful!
  • Prepare your child to manage setbacks and disappointments
    By “fixing” their mistakes for them or trying to prevent them from feeling any disappointments, children don’t have an opportunity to learn what disappointment feels like AND learn that it will pass. When they’re disappointed, empathise with them: “I know. You tried really hard. You’re so disappointed.” Rather than pushing them through the disappointment you might then say: “Let me know when you’re ready to work out a new strategy (for next time) or to find another solution” (or, as I like to call it, ‘a new opportunity to learn.’) That way, you’re allowing them to feel the disappointment and letting them know that you’re there to assist with a new solution/opportunity to learn – when they’re ready. This helps children realise that all feelings eventually pass and that there is no problem too big or too small for which there aren’t options/solutions. More importantly, they learn that regardless of their mistakes, you still love and respect them unconditionally (“There is nothing you can do that will ever change my love for you.”)
  • Step in when the mistake/failure will bring shame or humiliation to your child
    For example, If you know they have a swimming carnival on but they left their bathers at home, please take it to them! Having them miss out on something they love whilst watching their friends have a blast is not teaching them anything, other than sheer embarrassment and distrust (“My parents won’t support me through my mishaps.”) The learning can come later – “How can we make sure you don’t forget your bathers next time?”
  • Be adventurous as a family
    Encourage your children to take risks and try new things – simply for the sake of having fun. Take them to new places, introduce them to new activities, cultures, and foods and encourage them to have a go. Have a go yourself! Children learn through what we model, not what we say.
  • Problem solving
    When problem solving, help your child brainstorm and allow even the “silliest” of solutions to be put forward without discounting them. By working out the pros and cons to each possible option, children can learn which option might work better than another and also, have the chance to learn what doesn’t work if they choose the “least ideal” option. This process also allows for discussions around safe and unsafe decisions and choices. It’s not going to be safe to try deep sea diving if you can’t swim!
  • Own up and make it right
    Admit when you make a mistake (and apologise to your kids when it involves them). One thing I often hear in my work is children saying, “My parents never make mistakes.”
    Name the mistake, talk through what you are planning to do to fix it, and ask your children if they might have some suggestions.
  • Support others
    Encourage your children to celebrate their friends’ successes and let them hear you doing the same for your friends. When a friend wins an award or does well at an event, offer congratulations or a high five! This teaches children that others’ successes are not their failures. There is room for everyone to shine in their own unique way.
  • Role model healthy self-talk
    If your children hear you saying: “I’m such an idiot, I never do anything right!” that will become their self-talk, no matter what you try and tell them about themselves. Instead, let them hear you saying: “I had so much fun doing that! I want to do better next time, so I’m going to practise more.” / “That was so hard! But it was worth it!” / “That didn’t go as well as I hoped, but you know what, I’m pretty stoked with the results! I tried my best and it went ok.”

So, what’s stopping you? Get out there and have a go!

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