Dear Mr. Dad: My kids are 9 and 11 and they’re fortunate enough to be good at almost everything they do. But if something comes up that they don’t pick up immediately – whether it’s a sport, a board game, an art project or something else – they tend to get frustrated and quit. How can I get them to understand that losing – or at least not being perfect at everything – is part of life?
A: You’ve just put your finger on one of the biggest challenges facing parents today: how to teach our children not only to accept failure but to embrace it. Unfortunately, too many children and young adults have spent most of their life in a world where they’re told every day that they’re amazing and fantastic, and where they get trophies and awards for just showing up. The message is clear: If you’re going to get the same reward whether you work hard or not, why trouble yourself?
At the same time, we live in a world where we’re obsessed with performance – whether that’s good grades and high test scores, playing on an elite sports team and leading the league in home runs or touchdowns, or landing a high-paying job. The message there is also clear: You have to be the best. If you’re not, you’re nothing. Or, as Cam Newton, quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, said after losing Super Bowl 50: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
Together, those two messages have created the situation your kids, and millions of others, are in: If they can do something extremely well right off the bat, they’ll do it. If not, they’ll quit in a hurry rather than risk being seen as a loser. At the same time, in order to keep being seen as winners – and to keep the “you’re amazing” comments and awards coming in – they gravitate toward activities they know they can excel at.
Bottom line: They don’t challenge themselves, they don’t understand the importance of hard work, and they haven’t developed the resilience they need to cope with failure.
So how can you get them to understand that losing is part of life? Well, it’s not going to be easy, but I think it can be done. The first step is to try to be less results-oriented in your own life. Less focus on grades and performance, more on learning and improvement.
Next, talk about hard work. But just saying that it’s important isn’t enough. Show your kids examples of people who’ve worked really, really hard to achieve success. It’s easy to look at someone like Bill Gates or LeBron James and say, “Oh, I want to be like that.” It’s a very different thing to understand how much work it took them to get where they are.
Talk about the importance of losing – and do more showing than telling. Be open about your own failures and those of anyone whose stories you know, and emphasize how the world didn’t come to an end when things didn’t go the way you wanted. You might also read them a few excerpts from Sam Weinman’s new book, “Win at Losing.” Weinman gives examples of very high-profile people in sports, entertainment, business and other arenas who not only failed, but took what they learned from failure and used it to succeed.
Finally, keep encouraging your kids to try new things – especially things they won’t be good at right away. Encourage them to talk with you about how it feels to not be the best, and help them figure out what they learned from the experience and how they can use those lessons in other areas of their life.
Read Armin Brott’s blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad.
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