A failed marriage, almost homeless, living on state benefits, a baby in tow and unemployment– a perfect recipe for disaster, right? But when JK Rowling found herself in that situation, she was inspired to write the first Harry Potter novel that took the world of children’s literature by storm. “It taught me things about myself that I could never have learnt otherwise,” says the writer who is now richer than the British Queen.
Apple founder Steve Jobs, who gave the world the iPod, iPhone and iPad, once spoke about his three setbacks –dropping out of college, being fired from his own company, and being diagnosed with cancer – that pushed him to greater heights.
Though parents regularly come across such stories, the message usually escapes them. You probably wrote essays on ‘Failure is the best teacher’ or helped your child write why ‘Failure is the stepping stone to success.’ But when your child fails, you behave in two distinct ways. You add to his misery by being very critical, forgetting that occasionally situations go terribly wrong in your life as well. Or you rush in with your comforting presence, not allowing him to fend for himself. Either way, you send one message: that pain and disappointment are best avoided.
Failure is not restricted to low grades. Losing in the inter-school cricket match, forgetting one’s lines at the school play or not making it to the quiz team – these may seem to be failures of a lesser kind. But in a child’s world, they are big setbacks.
They wonder: “Why doesn’t Mom get me a laptop?” or “Why wasn’t I made the Princess?” Their doubts assume a life of their own when you turn investigator: “We got you the best running shoes. Then, why did you lose the race?”, or “What makes you stammer in front of our guests”?
You forget that children are sensitive. You see failure in your child, and you panic, get angry. You think of the money and time spent shuttling them from art classes to private tuitions to piano lessons and fear more ‘disasters’.
Why we view failure as ‘BAD’
Your child believes now that if he fails, he will disappoint you, or that it makes his friends like him a little less. “Parents convey the message to a child that being loved depends on his being successful. Parental rejection is a child’s biggest fear. To avoid that, children even contemplate suicide,” says Sugami Ramesh, a clinical psychologist at Apollo Hospital, Bangalore.
The parents of Keerthana (16) are doctors who own a private hospital near Hyderabad. They want her to study medicine as ‘she has to manage our hospital.’ Keerthana has recurring nightmares about failing in the medical entrance exams. Says Keerthana,“If I fail to become a doctor, my parents will be ashamed of me.”
Did failure always scare us? Not really. Babies love to try new things, blissfully unaware of success or failure. Imagine a toddler learning to walk. He falls, gets up and falls again. But he never calls it quits.
“Your encouraging words and happy face are the clues that tell your toddler that he is on the right track. But with time, most parents criticise or ridicule their child when he fails, thus damaging his self-esteem. Children interpret their parents’ reactions as personal attacks and resent that,” says M Vasuki, a counselling psychologist.
Overindulgent parents may shield their children from failure. Such protected children are less capable of dealing with hard times, says Dr Wendy Mogel in her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. She calls them ‘teacups’ as when in trouble, they ‘chip like a teacup’.
“Our educational system, which does not allow a child till Class VIII to fail, is also at fault. In Class IX, some children realise that they have to catch up with their lessons. So they crumble under pressure,” says Chennai-based counsellor Sangeeta Mahesh.
How you can help
Only you can help your child cope with failure. So, where do you begin? Start with a few of these ideas.
Love your child unconditionally. “Assure them of your love so that they do not correlate your affection with their ability to do things to your satisfaction. This is the best thing that parents can do,” says Vasuki.
Have realistic expectations. You may want your child to become another AR Rahman. But it is more important to just let the child be, to joyfully explore the synthesizer and create tunes for himself, and to develop in his own way.
Be a role model. “Failures are momentary. Help your child get back to his feet. And be a firm, fair and friendly parent. If parents cope capably with their failures (financial, career-related, physical illness or marital troubles), children will automatically know.
Why failure is good
We stand to gain if we view failure as a friend rather than an enemy. Surprising? Here’s why:
Reality check: Much of the learning happens through failure, which shows children their weak points. When Rashmi’s daughter Saranya, 11, said she failed in Geography because of the teacher, Rashmi believed her – till the actual answer paper revealed otherwise. Rashmi taught her daughter to take ownership of the failure. She then set little learning goals for Saranya. Each time Saranya achieved a goal, she became more confident about the subject. Saranya scored well in her exams through hard work and her mother’s unwavering support.
Builds character: “Failure forces children to face situations and teaches resilience,” says Sangeeta Mahesh. Kaveri’s son Babu (8) hated yoga as it was ‘slow’. The third time he asked his mother to write a letter asking his teacher to excuse him, Kaveri became strict. She ensured that he never skipped a class. After much practice and persistence, Babu discovered that he actually loved yoga! His failure to manipulate his mother taught him that things do not always happen the way one wants - so instead of avoiding situations, it is best to tackle them head on.
Encourages innovation: Failure opens up opportunities and rewards efforts, resulting in accidental discoveries. Take your chocolate chip cookie, for instance. Ruth Wakefield set out to make chocolate cookies. She was mixing a batch of cookies one day when she saw that there was no baker’s chocolate. She substituted pieces of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate, expecting it to melt into the dough. But on removing the pan from the oven, she became the inventor of ‘chocolate chip cookies’! Penicillin and Post-it notes, too, are the children of failure!
Tell them about chocolate chip cookies. Share inspirational stories with children. Tell them the story of Watty Piper’s classic tale The Little Engine That Could where the engines sing “I-think-I-can! I-think-I-can!” When your plan fails, you fall back on Plan B or explore other options. Show your child how setbacks encourage risk-taking and lead to growth.
Do not fight their battles: Accept that children can often tackle minor glitches on their own. Take Tom in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a novel that adults and children adore. Tom is in Aunt Polly’s bad books. On a Saturday, she makes him whitewash the fence while his friends are playing in the summer sun. Does Tom mope around? No. Instead, he tells his friends how they are missing out on the joys of painting (“Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”). Soon, his friends are begging to share the punishment. Tom enjoys an apple while they complete his task!
Look deep: Foster the good habits that lead to success, and if they fail, help them understand what went wrong. “Inculcate rational thinking in your child. Explain to them why they failed. It could be that they skipped a lesson, or that they could not answer on time. Find the reason and work on it together and ensure that your child is better prepared the next time. Also, let them know that certain things are beyond our control,” says Sangeeta Mahesh.
Tell them that everyone cannot be everything: Renuka’s son Vivek (11), who loves to write, walks with a slight limp. One day, he came home and threw his creative writing books into the bin. The reason – some boys had imitated his limp as the others cheered them on. His mother, through pertinent reasoning, made him realise that one did not become a failure on account of a shortcoming, physical or otherwise. His friends were not good at creative writing (which was their shortcoming), but that did not make them failures!
Tackle fears: Tackle their irrational fears to build confidence. Deepti (7) was afraid of the dark. Her mother took her to a psychologist who asked Deepti to close her eyes and then said: “Imagine, there are people, even children, who are blind and live in darkness all the time.” Deepti was not afraid anymore!
Teach her that life goes on: A regular routine comforts and reassures your child. After a setback, tell her to do the things she usually does. Let her know that you are taking her to the park as usual, and that in the evening she would be going to the dance class as usual.
Build a support system: “Include your children’s grandparents and your friends in it,” says Vasuki. After failing the law entrance exam, Deepak chatted with his grandfather, a farmer who went on to set up a chain of grocery stores. Now, Deepak is determined to give the exam another shot. He believes that if his grandfather could forge ahead despite limited opportunities, then he too can!
Seek help: Why? Simply because children will have their secrets. Ajit’s grades in Class XII slipped but he refused to explain the reason to his parents (he had been rejected by a girl in his class). He revealed it to a counsellor who helped him build his self-esteem.
Allow your children the gift of failure so that they learn to negotiate the bends and uneven roads. So what if your child has been knocked down by failure? Help him think and devise new strategies. Soon, he will be a confident, independent adult leading a productive life. That is why they say “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”!