This post is in response to The Gift of Failure by Steve Baskin

Children at N.Y. Zoo (LOC)

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr


Steve, in his article ‘The Gift of Failure', implies, that trying to inculcate self-esteem in your children is counter-productive and has done an entire generation a disservice. Also he seems to be critical of parents who try to protect and facilitate their children and would rather prefer parents that prepared their children for an unpredictable and inhospitable world.

While I agree with the broader thesis that overprotecting your children or never exposing them to challenges is counterproductive and harmful, I do have some concerns in the way Steve makes his case and the sort of parenting style - an off hands/ spectator parenting style, if I may speculate, - that he implicitly encourages.

Firstly, research in child attachment shows that children need a secure base of attachment and a trustable, and not capricious or unpredictable, relationship with a primary caregiver to become secure in their later relationship styles and to explore their environment properly. For e.g., a child who is securely attached is more likely to explore his environment more fully if the primary caregiver is nearby, than if he is absent or not available. Of course this doesn't mean, not providing any space to your child to become independent and autonomous, but at a critical stage in childhood it's better to just be there when the child needs you.

They need to be able to count on their parents/ other attachment figures unconditionally and their interaction with parents/ primary caregivers should not be modelled like that with other relationships they may encounter in the future- unpredictable or capricious. As a matter of fact those children, whose parents do exhibit such unpredictable/ capricious behaviour, lead to very insecurely attached children, which have later immense problems in adjusting to the world.

But one may counter that the attachment research I am alluding to is more pertinent at the infant/ toddler stage but not in early/ middle childhood or teenage stages. In these older childhood states perhaps its better not to give unconditional love, regard and efforts to instil self-love and self--esteem. Perhaps here an off-hands approach is better. Let the child fall / fail and learn.

Consider a toddler learning to walk; the parents cannot avoid all falls he will have; and neither is the child discouraged by any falls he may have; this is primarily because the child has already seen many older child develop walking skills and knows that he can also learn to walk- its only a matter of trying, and failing, for a few times. Yet the parent takes adequate precaution that while the toddler is learning to walk, he doesn't get seriously hurt- he is always watched on and protected.

A toddler is by nature resilient; but as he grows older he starts failing and not rebounding back. Serious thought will lead us to find out that the reason is that he never knew the meaning or label of ‘failure' earlier- he was trying to walk- something didn't work and he tried again. He knew others have done it and so too can he. He was confident. As he grows older he is started to be labelled a failure; he flunked a maths test and is given a fail grade; without adequate modelling or exposure to people like him who have flunked maths test but later become prodigies in maths, he internalizes the failure and stops trying.

The problem is not self-esteem; if anything self-esteem or ‘confidence no matter what' is the solution. The problem is labelling something/ someone a failure. If anything, once labelled a failure, the child needs a lot of unconditional love, support, encouragement and self-love and self-esteem to keep trying despite repeated failures to overcome the challenge and master the skill.

Thinking in terms of victories or failures is immensely counterproductive and that is why rank system in classes were replaced with grade systems and trophies given for just showing up- for the courage to take the test - or perform on stage- rather than for only winning or succeeding.

Failures are not to be encouraged per se, it's not ok to say that let the child fail more- as long as society doesn't have adequate safety nets and instead promptly starts labelling such children failures, those failures are counterproductive. Let the children stretch just beyond their comfort zone and be there to guide and facilitate, or scaffold their learning; if you really care about your child. Exposing them to failures, expecting more and more and encouraging them to take more than they can chew, or challenging them beyond their abilities such that they constantly keep failing, will only lead to scarred and bruised children who may become ‘learned helpless' by constant exposure to failures without adequate safety nets in terms of endowing in them a ‘growth mindset' rather than a ‘fixed mindset'.

With the inculcation of growth mindset- which praises efforts -for just showing up- rather than praises inherent talent - or winning the game - one can create that adequate safety net for children, where they can take challenges head on, and on failing not internalize, generalize or make permanent attributions about their ability or start viewing themselves as a failure.

A superficial, off-hands approach to parenting, with the noble intentions, of making your child fit for a dog-eat-dog world, will only backfire and lead to broken and depressed children.
Another safety net is exposing to people who have been there- done that- failed earlier and risen again. Failure, as is, is very common; we don't need to create more failure opportunities than are already available. If failure, without an adequate safety net was good, students going from high school to college and suffering setbacks in the first term would have become more resilient and fit for the world.

Unfortunately, research by Timothy Wilson, shows that such students, if not intervened properly, get from bad to worse grades as semesters progress. However, exposing them to other students which had failed earlier and had later regained good grades, restores their confidence - and that confidence leads to later competence - they actually increase their scores later as semesters progress.

It is imperative to understand that confidence comes first and competence later- the converse view that Steve promulgates is more in line with fixed mindset: I aced the test, that's why I am good; let me not venture for more difficult tests or I might be exposed. A growth mindset however has confidence first and foremost and ability only follows later with efforts put in place.

There is a lot of research on power of beliefs- how a group of students told that they are A grade students would actually get A grades (and same is true in workplace- the employees randomly put on fast track do actually get on fast track) - this is proof enough that confidence, belief and self-confidence come first- competence only follows it.

While Steve is right in drawing attention to the larger problem of overprotecting our children or not exposing them to challenge or encouraging them to stretch beyond their comfort zones; a layman interpretation of ‘failures are good' and ‘inculcating unconditional self-love/self-confidence/ self -esteem is bad' is totally counterproductive and would do disservice to a whole new generation.

Failure is not a gift; but the real gift is the attitude we can inculcate in our children to face the inevitable failures that will come their way and the self-esteem/ confidence in them that they can develop skills / competence, no matter what their current level, by constantly keeping on trying and learning and trying again (and perhaps never thinking of a failed trial as a failure)
While it's important to prepare the children for the road, it's equally important to prepare the road for them. Unless society provides safety nets that doesn't lead to labelling a child as a failure, or exposes them to adequate role models, we are better off, if we do not expose our children to ‘failures', but only to ‘trials and experimentations'.

Until we reach that ideal world, where failure is not looked down upon, and does not lead to labelling and internalization, we may be better off protecting our children from needless failures by exposing and facilitating them to challenges that lie just beyond their comfort zone, but are not too difficult or stretched.

About the Author

Sandeep Gautam

Sandeep Gautam is a software developer and science writer at The Mouse Trap.

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