Why Parents Should Help Their Children Fail

Ryan Leak, motivational speaker, consultant and pastor, recently wrote the book Chasing Failure: How Failure Sets You Up for Success. In it, he helps reframe the concept of failure from a mistake or misfortune to a concept of future progress and success. This is the fifth article in a series designed to help reframe the concept of failure for marketers. The first article explains why failure is the secret to success, the second article lists five ways to achieve it, the third article shares Leak’s personal story of how he learned firsthand how to convert failure success, and the fourth article explores why students must chase failure. In this article, Leak focuses on how parents can help children chase failure.

As someone who teaches MBA students about marketing and non-marketing, the way someone reacts to failure seems to be largely “prepared” by the time they reach their late twenties. The purpose of this article is to help parents (and coaches/teachers) understand how to raise and develop children who respond effectively to failure.

What is the challenge for parents today? Ryan Leak suggests, “I think all parents would agree that we want the best for our children. But I think sometimes wanting the best for them can bring out the worst in us. A common perception of failure that most parents struggle with is that they project their children’s failures onto themselves. We think, ‘Well, my kids can’t fail because then I’m going to look like I failed as a parent.’ When in reality, we’ve probably failed at the same things, so we’re holding our children down to a level we haven’t even reached ourselves. We must learn to let go of the idea that our identity rises and falls on the successes or failures of our children. Another perception is that failure improves or debilitates.

According to a Stanford University study, how a parent perceives and reacts to failure is directly related to how their child will perceive intelligence, whether it is fixed or can be improved. Leak suggests, “In the study, if a parent viewed failure as an opportunity for growth, their child adopted the same mindset. But if a parent perceived failure as a negative obstacle to success, then their child acquired the same fixed mindset. What this study clearly reveals is that our children are looking at us, so what do we want them to see?

Leak suggests that this is different from previous generations: “If we adopt our failure mindsets from our parents, then naturally each generation is going to see failure differently. I think one of the ways we see that is how we look at our careers. Previous generations worked in the same place for 30-40 years and then retired, but today’s generation is independent of organizations and always looking for the next best opportunity. According to a recent Gallup Millennials report found that six out of ten millennials are open to new job opportunities and millennial turnover rates are costing the US economy $30.5 billion a year. I believe this is due, in part, to how different generations perceive failure. Today’s workforce expects a “dream job”. Even if a person has a very good job, they feel like they are failing because they don’t have their dream job. Today’s generation faces many more comparisons than previous generations. When I graduated from high school, I knew my friends were going to college, but I couldn’t see their every move along the way. Today you are just one click away from seeing the best college experience someone else has or the best job they got. This will harm people’s perception not only of failure, but also of their success. And in turn, this has an impact on parents’ expectations of their children.

The challenge for parents is that they don’t want their children to fail. The leak suggests this is a problem. “It’s critical because if the first time they fail is at 35, it’s going to be overwhelming. While most parents have good intentions and just want their kids to be happy, we can’t protect our kids from failure. Helicopter parents, maybe you know one or are one, are most guilty of this. They are ready to remove any obstacles their child may face in order to see them succeed. The problem with this is that their children then grow up without the essential skills needed to solve their own problems. And if they are not allowed to fail when they are younger, they might suffer later in adulthood when the consequences of failure are more severe. We need to teach our children that it’s okay to make mistakes and how to tell the difference between bad and good ones. Letting our children fail when they are young teaches them to recognize the difference between a monumental failure and a momentary failure. The perfect time to experience failure is when you’re young because you have nothing to prove and everything to improve.

To guide children through failure, Leak suggests three key steps.

1. “Make sure your child has a healthy view of success and define what that looks like. Many families put pressure on their family members to look successful, but don’t always equip their homes to be successful. Success should be defined in a healthy and realistic way. For example, there is a huge difference between being the best and giving your best. Trying to be the best and failing will lead to depression. Giving your best and failing will lead to contentment.

2. Be sure to use failure as an opportunity for growth as well as a guiding opportunity. Grades are important, but a grade on a test is not a grade on a lifetime.

3. Make sure they know you’ve failed too and share those moments with them, especially when you’re in the moment.”

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