Tips &

Tips &

Words that often hurt us: Five ways to reframe ‘failure’ for children

August 2022
Janthea Brigden
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When my daughter first started school, she was incredibly excited about wearing the pink gingham summer uniform frock. On the first day of the new term, she came into our room fully dressed at around 5 am, delighted and pleased that she had “done everything myself!”.

Sleepy and less than receptive to feelings at that hour, my husband and I began to giggle as the dress was on back to front with the buttons done up and in the wrong holes, giving a very lopsided effect!

“What’s wrong with me?” she asked crestfallen and disappointed by our reaction. She had struggled hard to put on her frock and was very pleased with the result. She saw nothing wrong or funny about her appearance until we pointed it out by laughing at her, so then she felt as though something was wrong with her rather than with what she had done. She perceived it as having failed.

Every day 'failures'

It is amazing how often we inadvertently tell children they’ve ‘failed’.

“You‘ve put your shoes on the wrong feet”

“You’ve done the buttons up wrong”

“Those colours don’t match”.

Whilst we may be thinking that we’re helping them to do things the ‘right’ way, what they may be hearing is “you can’t do anything right”. 

Does it really matter if their coat buttons are squiffy, or if they put their shoes on in a different way?

The point is they have tried and now experience the outcome of their efforts.

I love it when young babies, who have become trapped whilst exploring under a chair or table, are extricated by adults, and then go straight back in to try the learning experience again! They want to learn by themselves. They have no notion of having ‘failed’ until we comment or suggest this.

How much more self-esteem would children have if adults refrained from pointing out mistakes, and simply encouraged and appreciated the effort put into trying?

A 2016 study showed that parents' ‘failure mindsets’ affect their children more than their views on intelligence. If parents think that failure is shameful and therefore regularly point out mistakes, children are more likely to be derailed by these mistakes. 

Creating a safe space

When humans feel safe and secure they are in the optimum space to truly develop and learn to be the best possible version of themselves.

Creating feelings of safety for our children is the greatest, most enabling gift we can give them. This means allowing them to try things for themselves, and improve each time, without fearing that they’ll be criticised or told they’ve “done it wrong”. 

So how do we encourage our children to make mistakes and improve, rather than fostering a fear of failure? 

5 Top tips for reframing ‘failure’

1. Explain and try again

If a child becomes frustrated by being unable to do something themselves, try explaining how to do it rather than doing it for them or telling them they’ve done it wrong. 

2. Praise the effort not the achievement

If a child has tried to put a coat or shoes on by themselves, focus on their effort rather than the fact that they’ve done up their buttons incorrectly or their shoelaces wrong. By congratulating them on their effort and explaining rather than criticising them, they’ll be more likely to try it again next time. 

3. Let them recover

If a child falls over, hold back from running in to pick them up. Let them decide if they are hurt or not. Often they just stand up and carry on with what they were doing. By allowing them to recover themselves they’ll develop their own resilience. 

4. Encourage curiosity 

Instead of defining an action as a mistake or a failure, encourage your child to question what they could improve if they didn’t get the result they wanted. If they didn’t couldn’t trace a draw a certain letter for instance, could they hold their pencil differently? Or could they start the letter in a different position? 

5. Add the word “yet”

It’s truly amazing the power that one little word can have. If a child is frustrated by something that they can’t seem to get ‘right’, reminding them that they can’t do it ‘yet’ is a powerful way to begin to instil a ‘growth mindset’ in your child.