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Why Failure Is Not Always a Bad Thing

December 27, 2018

#Community #Pedagogy FailureLearning to LearnMontessoriParenting

Failure is not a dirty word – why should it be? For those of you familiar with our manifesto, you might have noticed this stanza:

It’s fine to fail, but just don’t bail.
The 2nd time’s easier for you to prevail.

manifesto saturday kids

Beyond teaching kids how to code (many people can do that), we care deeply about changing a child’s mindset towards learning and helping them realise that learning can be fun, too. Like real life, we’re all about trying things out, failing, figuring what went wrong & trying again.

In this post, Victoria – Montessori educator at the Bright Life and Code in the Community lead at Saturday Kids – discusses failure – why it matters for kids, and how we might deal with it. 

Winston Churchill said, “success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” I particularly like this quote and it sums up The Bright Life’s attitude towards failure. Often, we seem so focussed on the end goal that we end up giving it way too much credit and we overlook the courage it takes to try, especially when the odds are stacked against us.

Much of our work revolves around younger children and helping them build important life skills before society comes in to enforce their own beliefs. Take failure for example, a young child enjoys the process of completing a task, observing how things can be done in different ways and trying a task over and over again. In fact, just observing my two-year-old son finding great pleasure in piecing the jigsaw puzzle pieces together, only to pull them apart and piece them back together again is all the proof I need that the process is important and must be honoured. Unfortunately, whether through our own perceptions and attitudes as parents, or the reward systems that only seem to value success based on the best grades or the highest score, children actually begin to take on this mindset as well and start to believe that everything only matters when we succeed – which is not true.

Here are 4 ways we can put our minds on track to embrace failure and encourage the “can do” spirit!

1. Embodying support for your child

We like to think of parents as the child’s greatest cheerleader. This means that when our children have a hard time and want to give up, or when they want to attempt something new, we should always meet them with support. Of course this doesn’t pertain to supporting every single thing they do (throwing food across the dinner table and laughing probably falls into the not-funny-at-all category), but the meaningful work they’re trying to achieve.

It requires us to know what support should look like at the different stages of our child’s life. For young toddlers, support looks like sitting beside them to guide them through the process of the task they are trying to accomplish. We will probably also need to be their ‘outside voice’ because they are still learning to articulate their frustrations and will need help talking through their feelings. Support, for young children, also goes beyond words of encouragement but to actually be part of the process to complete their task together, or maybe demonstrate again to help them gain a better grasp of the work.

In most instances, the type and level of support will vary from child to child, and will require the parent to dedicate some time to really observe and listen to the child’s needs in order to determine how they can support their child. Through this we also recognise and respect them as individuals, much like ourselves, where some of us prefer hugs and ice-cream whilst others opt for a solitary run instead. This not only allows us to offer better help, it also reinforces the idea that you care about what bothers them.

2. Redefining success

I’ll be the first to admit that it took me awhile before I could reframe my own definition of success just because prizes, awards, and material possessions have always been a strong part of the success narrative I’ve been taught. It’s important to acknowledge that every child wants to feel proud of themselves, and recognised for their work. We can help them do that when we reframe what success and failure is.

One tip I always share with the parents we work with is to be realistic in their expectations. This means to say that being aware of what a four-year-old is capable of will enable us to design better activities for them, and also set them up for success.

Redefining success also means that we must be cognisant and accept that every child learns differently and at a different pace. If we fail to acknowledge that each child has their own innate talents and gifts then we have given them too narrow a universe to live in. Instead, Montessori reminds us that as we see ourselves as the facilitators of a child’s potential and growth, we need to observe their strengths and inclinations in order to help them build on these talents. For us, it doesn’t mean we never do anything we aren’t talented in (like Math), it just means that we are aware that the child may take more time in understanding certain concepts as compared to others.

Of course it’s a process of change that has to begin with the parents and caregivers. Our view of success has been so ingrained that it won’t change overnight. Yet, it is when we start becoming conscious about our own prejudice and attitudes that real change will be made. It’s not about not trying to get the award or first prize; it means that we can afford to look at success in a more holistic manner that values hard work, kindness, determination and even just giving it a good shot.

3. Opportunity to grow in resilience

At a recent resilience training course I attended, all participants had to work in pairs and chart out our year’s highs and lows based on how we felt about events that had happened in the past year. We had all come from different backgrounds but when we compared our charts, the pattern was similar. We had all been through good and rough patches and had found the strength to bounce back each time. The lecturer explained that resilience was the key to bouncing back from difficult situations. As opposed to the belief that resilience means gritting one’s teeth and trudging through despite pain, resilience is actually more about one’s ability to pick themselves up after a fall and try again. In this vein, failure, or not getting things right, helps our children learn how to dust themselves off and give things another shot.

Here comes the tricky bit; how we respond to their success or failures shape their development of this neat skill called resilience. As a general guide, we always give recognition to the values that we want our children to build. Whether it’s the effort of trying to complete a task, the attention to detail or that they kept their cool even when things got tough.

Sometimes our children just get mad and decide they want to give up altogether. In instances such as these, leave the task at hand and take a break. To continue instilling the ‘try again’ attitude though, do bring your child back to the task to give it another go. Building resilience is much like building muscles; the more we practice, the stronger it gets. When we use each stumble to build and exercise resilience, we build help our children build resilience for the future.

4. Lesson in managing negative feelings

It doesn’t feel great when we don’t succeed, especially after we’ve put in so much effort. In fact, it doesn’t feel great when a good friend says something mean to you, or when things don’t seem to go the way we plan. What we’re trying to say is that negative feelings arise in many situations, including the times when we don’t succeed. There’s little we can do to get rid of them, but much we can do to learn how we can manage these pesky feelings.

One of the most important things we can do for our children is to acknowledge their feelings, and to let them know that we see them. This means that we don’t brush off their feelings with a, “don’t be angry” or “don’t give up”. Instead, we let them know that they are entitled to their feelings and that we respect them. Subsequently, we can help them manage these feelings in a productive way, such as going outdoors to play, or even embarking on some breathing exercises. Also when you’re having a bad day, invite your child into your world by sharing what you will do to help yourself feel better and maybe even bring them along.

It’s crucial we show our children the many facets of being human; this includes the wide range of emotions we are able to feel. This lets them develop a deeper understanding and acceptance of feelings that may be considered ‘bad’ such as being sad or angry, and subsequently allow them to manage these feelings instead of being overrun or embarrassed by them. By paying attention to emotional literacy from a young age, we also support our children in managing these feelings in a positive and productive way and keeps the avenues open for greater communication.

Failure, to us, is just part and parcel of our every day. When we stop giving it so much attention, and start opening our eyes to the many ways we can approach failure, we widen the world we bring our children up in. That, to me, is a bright life.

. . . 

At Saturday Kids, we’re on a mission to inspire kids to be curious and self-motivated learners.
Find out what we’ve got planned for kids this school holiday right here!

Through this series of articles, we hope to create conversations around what real learning means.
If you have any comments or feedback or just want to chat over a coffee, drop us an email at [email protected]!

Read more from this series:

How to Nurture Independent Kids: Learn from the Montessori Approach
Raising Self-Directed Learners: What is Intrinsic Motivation and Why Does It Matter?

About Victoria Yim

Victoria manages Code in the Community – providing free coding classes for kids from lower-income families – and is also the founder of The Bright Life, where she runs parenting workshops and mindfulness programmes for children, working closely with parents to build on techniques to bring calm into the home.