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Failure Is an Option

Pin the tail on the donkey

Whenever Helena Bogosian takes her daughters, Margot, 5, and Nina, 4, out to eat, she asks if they can have the same toy in their kids' meal so neither feels slighted. But one time the girls got different things because the restaurant had run out of the plastic grasshoppers they both wanted. Margot started crying hysterically, so the Tenafly, New Jersey, mom drove to four more franchises in fruitless pursuit of matching toys. By the time she gave up, it was dark, the kids were fast asleep in their car seats, and she felt foolish. "I learned that avoiding a child's disappointment can be harder than helping her deal with it," she says.

Many parents today seem willing to go to ever-greater lengths to protect their kids from the pain of dashed expectations. Consider how many preschools have a policy against inviting only select classmates to a birthday celebration; everyone must be included. At the party, you have to avoid playing musical chairs because someone ends up without a seat, feeling excluded. Lots of sports leagues for younger kids don't even bother to keep score anymore -- to prevent one team from feeling like losers. And all because we don't want our children to feel bad about themselves.

The irony is that disappointments are actually beneficial for kids. Learning to deal with setbacks helps them develop key characteristics they'll need to succeed, such as coping skills, emotional resilience, creative thinking, and the ability to collaborate. "Parents see failure as a source of pain for their child instead of an opportunity for him to say, 'I can deal with this. I'm strong,'" says Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.

If you're shaking your head and clinging to the idea that it's your job to make your child feel like a million bucks, you might be interested in what the research shows. A review of 200 studies published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that having high self-esteem didn't cause kids to get better grades or do better in their career. "Success leads to feeling good about yourself, not the other way around," explains Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., a psychologist at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. Even more revealing: An experiment published in the Journal of Social Science and Clinical Psychology found that students who were faring poorly in college did even worse following efforts to boost their self-esteem.

So should you resist the urge to rebuild your child's block tower when it tumbles to the floor, or refrain from talking to his coach if he never gets to play goalie? There's no right answer. You need to determine how much struggling he can bear. But there are everyday steps you can take to teach him how to cope when things don't work out exactly the way he wants.

Pin the tail on the donkey

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.

Teach them to delay gratification.
Whether it's candy before dinner or skipping schoolwork to go to the playground, kids want what they want when they want it. But encouraging a child to wait helps him develop self-control, a skill he'll rely on throughout his life.

In a landmark experiment that began in 1968 and is still ongoing, Walter Mischel, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Columbia University, left a group of 4-year-olds alone in a room with a bell, three marshmallows, and a choice: If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could get one marshmallow. But if they waited for him to return on his own, they would get two marshmallows. Some kids rang the bell in seconds, while others sweated out a full 20 minutes. Dr. Mischel then followed hundreds of these preschoolers into adulthood. Those who were able to wait went on to attend better colleges and became more adept at coping with frustration and stress. The kids who couldn't were more likely to become bullies and have drug problems in adulthood. The findings underscore the fact that if a child can control his impulses -- and keep his eyes on the prize -- he'll be better able to handle all sorts of challenges.

To nurture self-control, Dr. Kindlon recommends establishing house rules -- such as "You must hang your coat in the closet as soon as you take it off" -- and enforcing them without exceptions. Once a child learns that these rules aren't negotiable, he'll more easily accept that it's homework first and TV second or that his room must be cleaned up before a playdate. And soon enough doing these things will become a habit.

Be a good role model.
Your child watches you like a hawk, so it's important to handle your own disappointments with grace. If you panic every time you misplace your cell phone or curse when you stain a shirt, you're not demonstrating healthy coping skills. When Debby Clarke, of Colorado Springs, didn't receive a medal for finishing a 10K road race, her daughters -- who get trophies just for participating on sports teams -- expected her to be let down. "I told them I felt great because I ran my best and had fun, and that's what matters most," Clarke says.

Use phrases that will help your child cope with his own shortcomings, such as, "I'll try harder next time" or "I've done it once; I can do it again." And take responsibility when you goof ("I'm sorry I forgot to bring your bathing suit. Silly Mommy.") This shows that adults make mistakes too -- and own up to them.

Manage expectations.
Kids fail tests, strike out, and forget their lines. Picnics get canceled when it rains. Stores run out of popular dolls. You can't prevent these things from happening, but you can reduce your child's distress by keeping her anticipation within reason. Stacey Cermak, of Montclair, New Jersey, discovered this when her 5-year-old daughter, Eliska, had her first sleepover. They spent the whole week looking through cookie recipes to decide what to bake, selecting toys, and arranging mattresses. When the friend backed out at the last minute, Eliska fell apart. "I realized how much I had fed into her expectations," says Cermak.

Rather than talking about exciting plans as guarantees, treat them as mere possibilities. Then if things don't work out in the end, you've cushioned the blow -- and reinforced the lesson that minor disappointments are a part of life.

You can't shield your child from every little setback, but there are times when she'll need your help.

If failing would cause him tremendous humiliation. When your child forgets his costume for the school play, don't teach him a lesson in responsibility. Bring it to him.

If your child is in danger. Just because her friends are advanced swimmers doesn't mean you should let your beginner go into the deep end.

If he's being bullied. One snide remark at the playground isn't cause for alarm, but intervene if you see continuous teasing or excluding that visibly upsets your child.

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Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Parents magazine.