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Have You Properly Prepared Your Kids for Defeat?

How parents can teach kids to deal with setbacks and disappointment.

Key points

  • Parents play a significant role in mediating the disappointment of losing, of not being number one.
  • Given the right tools, children can learn to bounce back from setbacks and failure.
  • Parents can foster a growth mindset in which kids are made aware that the ability to learn is not fixed and failure is not a permanent state.
Source: Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay

An education policy consultant and parent, Sima Bernstein, EdD, feels pretty good about everything she taught her children when they were growing up. They’re now young adults living on their own, and she declares her parenting a success with one exception: She regrets that she neglected to give her kids survival tools for handling disappointment and defeat. To help other parents avoid the same, she’s compiled valuable lessons that lay out what she would do differently.

Guest Post by Sima Bernstein, EdD

Understanding that you can’t always win would have padded a lot of my children’s falls. I wish I had properly taught them that it’s really OK not to be number one–that it is OK to be number two, or number 322 for that matter.

In an assessment culture–our world of endless metrics–kids are fed a constant diet of rankings compared to their immediate peers and same-age kids across the country. If I could have helped my kids understand that being number one is an aberration rather than something that happens all the time, I could have toughened them up, spared their pain, and gotten them back on their feet after failure and disappointment much faster.

Cushioning Inevitable Blows

Given a parenting do-over, here’s what I would have imparted: From toddlerhood to graduate school, it’s impossible to escape classification. Once in a while, you’re in the 95th percentile for something. But sometimes, you’re average on the curve; you’re at the bottom of the tennis ladder; you’re an alternate on the debate team; you make the team but get no playing time; or you get cast in the play but get no speaking part.

Someone will be number one, and sometimes, it will be you. But mostly, it won’t, which is not only OK but also great! That is living life.

I know a parent who will tell you proudly that he taught his children, “Winning is not the main thing; it’s the only thing.” There was a lot of needless crying in that house. Everything from coming in second place in Candyland to a defeat in the soccer championship was a Waterloo moment. That is to say, disappointment was totally unexpected, and the kids felt there was no redemption. That kind of mentality, where you’re either number one or a failure, can make life all the more difficult for children as the competitor pool grows and challenges intensify.

For that reason alone, I should have emphasized to my children the importance of making peace with not being numero uno–and moving on–by providing them with honest-to-goodness coping skills for life.

In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, promulgates the notion that grit trumps talent as the key to success. Similarly, other experts stress the importance of resilience or tolerating delayed gratification. Carol Dweck at Stanford University advises fostering a growth mindset in which kids are made aware that the ability to learn is not fixed and that failure is not a permanent state. These and other skills to cope with failures or losses are likely just as if not more important than raw talent in the long run.

Overcoming Setbacks

If we didn’t know before, COVID has made it abundantly clear how fragile our kids are. Combine adolescent angst and the strains of a still-COVID world, where everything seems to remain in flux, with the notion that if you’re not the winner, you are nothing and have a perfect recipe for disaster. When we talk about the horrible mental health toll that COVID took on teens, for many, it likely wasn’t the effects of the pandemic alone. It was how it disrupted a culture fixated on success, where the focus is constantly on being the best 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I would also push harder against what I call the “Mozart syndrome.” In Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s competitor, Antonio Salieri, a stellar musician and composer, drives himself to despair because he realizes Mozart will always shine brighter. Shaffer took some poetic license here and fictionalized Salieri’s ferocious competitive streak and inferiority complex. But in doing so, he created a pretty thought-provoking character for us modern parents: a virtuoso who views himself as a colossal failure when bested by one of history’s greatest composers.

Zhivko Minkov/Unsplash
Source: Zhivko Minkov/Unsplash

This is not to say don’t teach your children to try their hardest or find their passion and give it their all. But when we fail to teach our kids that they’re not going to win all the time, we neglect to provide a life jacket in case of a turbulent voyage. Instead, we need to let kids know that you can compete, do your best, and win sometimes, but probably not all the time. We should encourage them that it usually takes many attempts (and much practice) to find success.

Along those lines, one thing I would do for sure in my parenting redo is cite the failures of famous people. For example, James Patterson received 31 rejections before his first book publication. For Stephen King, it was 30 rejections; Dr. Seuss–27; and JK Rowling–12. I'd also share factoids like that Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony, and Bill Russell were all cut from their high-school basketball teams, and President Joe Biden graduated 76 of 85 in his law school class.

Finally, for the times when those small numbers just won’t cut it, I would haul out this record-breaker: Jack Canfield’s Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times. The lesson is clear: “If we had given up after 100 publishers, I likely would not be where I am now,” Canfield wrote on his Facebook fan page. “I encourage you to reject rejection.”

So when the day comes that your child is number one, and you’ve expended so much energy praising the alternative, how should you handle it? Sit back and enjoy the ride. Then file this lesson away for another day or a different child. There will always be someone who needs it.

Copyright @ 2023 by Sima Bernstein

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