Why Teaching Our Kids to Fail is So Important: ‘The Up Side of Down’
When I’m not writing this blog, I teach yoga classes. A woman fell out of her half-moon pose the other day and said, “Falling is very, very bad!” I said, “Falling is excellent! How else will you learn half-moon if you don’t fall 50 times? That’s exactly how all of us learned to get balanced and get strong.” She was so devastated to fail, but why? Failing is the key to success.
Author Megan McArdle agrees. Her book, The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, explains why teaching our kids to fail is so important.
KK: My kids get trophies just for playing soccer or participating in gymnastics class. Is giving out rewards like this good for our kids? How can it hurt them? What should our schools—and we as parents—be doing differently to prepare our kids for life?
MM: Failure doesn’t feel good. We probably all remember how bad it felt to be the kid who got picked last for the team or tried as hard as we could to win a prize but still fell short. It’s natural that we should want to shield our kids from that bad feeling by setting up games where “everybody wins.” But one of the most important lessons we learn in life is how to pick ourselves up after we try something—and flop. From babies learning to walk, to scientists figuring out how to split an atom, learning is a process of trial and error. A whole lot of error. The greatest successes are people who have failed again and again, learning along the way what doesn’t work . . . and from that, what does. When we shield our kids from failure, we’re teaching them that failure isn’t just unpleasant, but unimaginably horrible. They are sometimes completely derailed. Learning to cope with failure is one of the most important things anyone can teach. Kids who never confront failure won’t be equipped to dodge the curveballs that life inevitably sends you way, and will flounder once they hit the workforce.
KK: In what ways does the United States view failure and risk taking differently than other countries? Why is it easy to get rich in America and hard in Zimbabwe (or France)?
MM: America is a nation founded on failure. Why did our ancestors come here? By and large, because things weren’t working out back home. That heritage can be seen in our attitude towards failure. We admire people who don’t succeed at first but try, try again. We have higher rates of entrepreneurship, and we are more forgiving toward people who have tried to start a business and failed. We’re also more forgiving of people who have failed in other ways—our bankruptcy laws are the most generous in the world. When you make it easy for people to take risks, you also make it easy to get ahead. The more forgiving your culture is towards failure, the more welcoming it is of success.
KK: Which is better, frequent small failures or an occasional big failure? How can we encourage our kids to fail?
MM: “Fail fast to succeed soon.” That’s the motto of a lot of startups, for good reason. Small failures are easy to recover from. Big failures that build for a long time are much more likely to be catastrophic. Businesses, governments and parents should encourage people to fail early and often—but also to recognize their failures and cut their losses quickly.
KK: Why is consistency so key to changing bad habits, from toddler tantrums to self-destructive behavior?
MM: I said earlier that people are obsessive pattern-makers. We learn how to behave by observing what happens when we do certain things. If we like what happens, we do it again, and if we don’t, we try to avoid whatever we did to trigger it. That means that if you want to teach a kid—or an adult—how to behave, you need to have absolutely consistent rules. That allows them to successfully predict what results their behavior will produce. Small punishments that are doled out for every single transgression are much more likely to produce behavior change than larger punishments that are delivered inconsistently—and the same is true of rewards. So if you want to raise well-behaved kids, or help adult prisoners rehabilitate themselves, the most important thing you can do is focus on making sure that the same behavior gets punished or rewarded the same way every single time.
Need some inspiration to get back up, try again, and smile? Check out this video, Epic Animal Fails.
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