Failure Is an Option

Guiding Your Child

Pin the tail on the donkey

Heather Weston

Be your child's guide, not his savior.
You can't be there to soothe him every time he feels left out or falls short at a task, so prepare your child to manage setbacks. The next time he comes home crying because the other kids wouldn't let him play freeze tag, you might say, "How did you feel when they wouldn't let you join them?" Then ask how he might change the situation next time. "Really get him brainstorming," says Vickie Falcone, author of You Can't Make Me: How to Parent With More Connecting and Less Correcting. "The more possible solutions he can come up with, the better." Avoid nixing silly ideas or you'll shut down his creative problem-solving. Instead, you might say to him, "Yes, that's one option. What else could you do?" Preschoolers may need to be prompted with questions like, "Do you want to start your own game next time with some other friends?"

Pare back the praise.
Lavishing a child with compliments can do more harm than good. Kids who are overpraised become dependent on others for validation ("It's only a good picture if Mom tacks it up on the fridge") and may end up needing a constant flow of positive feedback to feel valued. "You get confidence from overcoming adversity, not from being told how great you are all the time," according to psychologist Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., author of Tough Times, Strong Children. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows how mis-guided praise can backfire. Carol Dweck, Ph.D., gave 400 fifth-grade students puzzles to complete. One group was lauded for its intelligence ("You must be smart at this!") and the other for its effort ("You must have worked really hard!"). After both groups were unable to complete difficult puzzles, they were given easy ones again. The "smart" group, discouraged by their previous failure, did 20 percent worse than on the initial round, whereas the group celebrated for trying hard did 30 percent better. "Making an effort is something kids can control, and so it instills in them the power to work harder and to deal with failure," says Dr. Levine. However, if they attribute success to their intelligence but then fall short, they tend to lose their motivation.

That's not to say you should never praise your child, but a little goes a long way -- especially when it's specific. Instead of saying, "You're the best big sister ever," try, "It was nice that you helped your little sister get dressed." This shows her what she's doing well rather than just pumping her up.

Encourage them to try new things.
Kids naturally gravitate toward the hobbies that interest them and at which they excel. But if your child avoids trying a different activity because she's afraid of how she'll perform, she'll lose the urge to broaden her horizons.

Parents often limit their kids by being overprotective. Jodi Arlen, of Bethesda, Maryland, was hesitant to enroll her then 3-year-old daughter, Sydney, in soccer. "She's very cautious and gets scared easily," Arlen says. But Arlen was pleasantly surprised by the result. "The instructor told me that she has a tremendous competitive streak and seems to be a natural."

Make a point of introducing your child to new things while making it clear that she shouldn't feel the need to smash any world records (at least not right away). "Your job is to emphasize effort and improvement," Dr. Levine says.

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