How to Give Kids a Healthy View of Failure


“Mommy, what does “fail” mean?” my redheaded son asked me as I slathered aloe vera over his warm, lobster-hued back. 

I had neglected to apply sunscreen before he played outside and in my ocean of guilt had muttered something about a colossal mommy-fail under my breath. Now I was at a loss for words to answer his question.

My thoughts raced as I grasped the right words to explain the concept of failure.

How does my five-year-old not know what failure is? Have I not given him enough opportunities to try new endeavors? Am I subconsciously afraid of failure for him?! 

My five-year-old doesn’t know what failure is! This is great! Shoot for the moon, kid, and don’t look back! 

I struggled to answer his question because I want to raise my kids with a healthy mindset on failure. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle of my musings.

Merriam-Webster defines “failure” as “omission of occurrence or performance; lack of success, a falling short”.

The world’s cultures approach the concepts of lacking success or falling short in vastly different ways.

Here in America, innovative companies like 3M hail perceived failure as a gateway to innovation. We post versions of the inspirational quote attributed to Thomas Edison on his invention of the incandescent light bulb: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This appreciation of “giving it a go” trickles down to kids’ sports leagues, where every child receives a trophy for trying. In a sense, our celebration of risk has resulted in an overvaluing of mediocrity.

Many other areas in the world have opposite approaches to the concept of failure. In some countries, to fail is deeply shameful. The possibility of failing an exam or an attempted business endeavor is so stressful that school children and citizens alike are driven to succeed by a very real, very sharp fear of failure. This perception results in excellence in many aspects of life; however it brings crippling shame should failure occur.

I dream of raising children on the middle ground between the extremes. 

How do we raise children with a healthy view of failure?

I will encourage my children to try new things, to stretch their limits without fear of failure. I also want my children to know that excellence is rewarded, not merely going through the motions for a pat on the back.

I will encourage my children to retain dignity when their idea flops or when they discover that soccer isn’t their sport. Messing up wouldn’t welcome wallowing; it would push them to boldly learn from their mistakes and move on with renewed insight.

I will encourage my children to keep trying even when the odds seemed stacked against them.

I will encourage my children to thrive in areas of healthy competition, to rise to the challenge of a well-matched opponent. I also want my children to respect the opponent who comes out on top—to give a heartfelt handshake to someone who outperforms them.

In short, I will encourage my children to allow failure to be an effective motivator but not so much that they live in fear of it. 

And of course. this mindset is one they must learn from watching my husband and me, as with most life skills that children learn from parents.

So I didn’t wallow in shame about allowing my redhead’s skin to get woefully singed. I apologized for my oversight and I promised to apply sunscreen on him the next time he plays outside all morning.

Maybe I’ll stop using the phrase “mommy fail.” Because really, the only true “mommy fail” happens the day we stop trying. 

… by the way, two great books on overcoming failure that we have in our house are Rosie Revere, Engineer and Luke Goes To Bat. They are worth checking out. 😉

Tell us, what other techniques do you have for raising children with a healthy view of failure?