Teach your children (and yourself) how to handle failure

One of the greatest gifts parents can teach their children is the art of handling failure in a graceful manner. In this mad, chaotic, competitive world, parents often push their children to strive for excellence. Excellence is often defined in a comparative manner – are you better than everyone at class? The entire effort is focussed on how to be successful. In this process, one crucial lesson in life is lost – what to do when I fail?

The inability to handle failure is perhaps one of the leading causes of depression. Why do I say this? A quote from Daniel Goleman’s excellent book Emotional Intelligence, which talks about a study on depressed children is quite telling.

“Those who see a bad grade as due to some personal flaw (“I’m stupid”) feel more depressed than those who explain it away in terms of something they could change (“If I work harder on my math homework I’ll get a better grade” : Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence (p. 244). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Because children have never been taught to handle failure, they think that failure is disastrous. Worse, they personalize it. That is to say, they assume that they are failures and not their action. This is a crucial difference. When we think we are failures, this shuts off any possibility to move towards correcting this failure. It is like we brand ourselves with no possibility of change. There could be no more dangerous thing than labelling our children as useless or as failures.

This is where parents play a critical role in teaching children that it is okay to fail. And then to begin to understand the root of the failure as a lack of preparation or the use of wrong methods. That way, the child begins to see that although the action has failed, (s)he hasn’t. And this attitude allows hope to remain in us. The hope that we indeed have the ability to change our actions.

This has important links to depression. Depression is characterized by hopelessness and is born because of some setback (career, relationship, money, health). Depressed people have a tendency to personalize the cause of the setback. Since they feel that they are failures, hope erodes from their lives and they simply cannot see any alternate possibility of bouncing back from setbacks. And this, as we saw from above, has roots in childhood.

But are we prisoners of our childhood? Not necessarily. Yes, our childhood is extremely formative. The maximum growth in the brain happens until the age of six. But scientists today tell us that our brains exhibit neuroplasticity, which is the ability to change until the last breath. Yes, it gets harder as we age, but it is never impossible. We can change our childhood patterns, including the propensity to be depressed. There are three things we can do:

  1. Awareness: Become aware of how you react to setbacks in life. Do you personalize it? Or do you see it as something that can be changed? Here, it is important not to judge yourself – “Oh! I personalize my setbacks. See I am useless even at this”. No! This is like rubbing salt onto an already smarting wound.
  2. Nurture your intention: Once we become aware that our minds slip into this self-defacing patterns, sit down with a pen and paper, and write down what is it you want? This is an extremely important step. The only way change can come about is by watering and nurturing our intentions (see my post on the secret to getting what we want). What kind of a person do you want to be? Someone who has the ability to overcome obstacles in life? Or someone who slips into self-pity and self-blame? We need to be able to make this choice. Understand: it is not who you are now (we have already become aware and accepted that in step 1). It is who we want to be. This volition, is critical for self-improvement. I often see it this way – what if we have one of those magical lamps from which a genie could emerge and grant us a wish? And if the genie (or God) asked you ‘My dear child, what kind of personality would you like to have”? What would you choose? Think about it. Also observe any fears that that prevent us from making this choice.
  3. Deconstruct the false self image: Once we are aware of our drawbacks and we have set and nurtured our intentions, we need to get to work. We need to peel away decades of accumulation of false self-defeating opinions that we have about ourselves. How can we do it? Set really simple goals. If you think you are useless at mathematics – then take up a 5th grade textbook. Tell yourself, ‘Alright. Here we go. Let me solve three problems today’. Keep it short and extremely simple. That should be your target for the day. After you finish (which you most likely will) – you notice that you have indeed succeeded at this level. Yes, your mind will come in and say, ‘But this is child’s play and not real life’. Doesn’t matter. All great people started from here and so shall we. Gradually begin to increase the difficulty and complexity of the task. And quite soon, we see that we are actually good at math. All that was needed was to overcome this image we had about ourselves. This negative self image blocks our curiosity and our natural propensity to get good at things. We can learn – anything. The brain is made that way. You can practice this deconstruction with anything “I am useless at driving a car”, “I am a horrible cook” or “I am no good at literature”.

Understand why we label ourselves as failures. Because we are afraid that society will label us. And before anyone could ‘prove’ that we are useless, we better label ourselves. This puts our ego in a ‘one-up’ position and we can tell that person “yes I already know I am useless”.

The root cause of a negative self image always lies in wanting people to accept us, to love us, to appreciate us. When people and especially our parents are very critical, we become critical of ourselves. This sets all sort of limits to our personalities. We assume we aren’t good at something. Think of the subject you really liked at school. Invariably, behind this strong penchant would lie a nurturing, kind and encouraging teacher. We do not hate subjects, we actually hate the teachers that taught them. I had this with math. I hated math until grade nine, when I had the kindest teacher there could be. In the ninth grade – and only in the ninth – I scored 99/100 in math.

Our effort as adults, should go into deconstructing these false limiting beliefs that we carry. For this, the above three step approach has worked wonders for me. And when dealing with children, always nurture them. Do not label them. Do not criticize them. Do not use unwarranted humour to laugh at them. Teach them that while their actions can fail, they never fail. They are born naturally curious, which means they have an infinite potential to learn and grow. All we need to do is to encourage that curiosity.

Imagine if all children were brought up this way. What a wonderful world it would be.

The ruins atop the Heidelberg castle. Germany 2019.

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