The tagline for the 1995 Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 (slightly overrated, in my humble opinion) included the phrase, “Failure is not an option.” That may certainly have been true for the Apollo crew, as failure likely meant death. However, the phrase has sadly been used in situations that it should not, especially when it comes to parenting. I cannot tell you how many times I have talked to high school students, stressed out of their minds, who tell me that they are under immense pressure to be the best, to not fail (even if, to many of them, failure is a B instead of an A). Most of these teens say the pressure does not come from their parents; that it is internal pressure to succeed. Whether or not that is true, it may not be their parents only; society, teachers and many other authority figures have placed into these kids’ minds the need to be the best. It can be culturally subtle, and also not so subtle, as Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) in Talladega Nights says, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” That advice ultimately wasn’t helpful to Ricky, and it isn’t helpful to our children.
For a movie with better parental guidance on the topic of failure, let me bring your attention to a little movie called Inside Out. Great film. Brilliant, actually. For those who have not seen this film, please stop reading right now and watch it.
Among the many messages within the story, the most powerful for me as a pediatrician and parent is about failure and our fear of it. The memory that Sadness keeps trying to play is about the time that Riley, the 11-year-old main character, failed to score a goal in hockey and her team lost the playoff game. Joy tries everything to stop Sadness from playing this memory, believing that Riley must remain happy all the time - that anything less will destroy her. But once Joy lets the memory play out, she realizes that in that failure, something good still happened: Riley’s parents and teammates came to her and comforted her, making her feel better. And Riley felt better, allowed to take in the pain of the failure, understand it, and grow from it. Vital skills that she will need.
Failure, and the sadness it brings about, is necessary for the healthy development of our children. Too often, we as parents try to buffer this feeling by not letting our children lose for fear of what it may do to them. Or we reward them for truly little. Or worse, we berate them and condemn them for failing. I have seen the former with friends who let their kids cheat and win at simple board games and I have seen the latter on fields wherever children are playing in competitive sports. None of this helps our kids and it comes back to haunt them (and us) as they grow up and try to navigate school and life on their own.
Helicopter parenting, overparenting – it’s bad for our children and for us as well. The technical term is moral hazard. By not allowing our children to fail, we incentivize reckless and undesirable behaviors in them later in life due to our overprotectiveness. I am in no way saying we are not supposed to be there for our kids and help them, but there is a difference between helping and doing, and there is a difference between failing and being a failure. Every one of us can excel at something. Every single one of us has suffered failure on the way to finding out what we are good at, and the most successful often learn much more from failure than from success. It is a cliché, but that does not make it less true. All too often, as humans, we dwell too much on the negative. This is never more apparent than as a parent. We must remember that not only is failure an option, but it is also a guarantee and a vital one at that.
When I play games with my kids, you are darn right I play to win. I don’t gloat or talk smack. They don’t like losing one bit. But at the end of every game, we shake hands and say “good game” no matter what. I try hard to teach my kids that you can be a bad winner and a bad loser, and neither will make you many friends. They might not have to like losing, but they have to accept it. At age 7, my son can now beat me (actually, sometimes he crushes me) at memory games; a few years ago he could not. My 3-year-old daughter is just getting started and I have no doubt will start winning soon. But in other games, like say ping pong, I beat him every time. I tell him that it is ok to feel sad, but I am 35 years older than him and have more ability and experience. However, with time, he will beat me. He just has to keep playing and he will get better and better. Now that he has seen this happen with other games, he is beginning to believe me. I try to avoid “practice makes perfect” as parents should not aim to teach perfection. Do I do a good job with this aspect of parenting? Time will tell.
That brings us to another point – sometimes we fail as parents, and that’s okay too. I fail as a parent. I tried to teach my son math and had him do problems to earn prizes. I got this idea from my dad, who used to have me do simple math problems as practice. However, I had to get 100% of the problems right to get the prize. 1 wrong = nothing. This likely fed into my competitive nature, and helped push me harder to succeed, though I still stink at math (so I married someone in finance). But there has also been a massive cost to me in terms of the immense pressure I put on myself throughout school and all the things I could have done if I had studied just a little bit less (which I did not realize would yield the same grades until it was too late). I want all kids to succeed, but I want to minimize the negative costs as much as I can. It is a delicate balance, as any parent would tell you. You want to push your kids but need to know how far is too far. Everyone is different, and you must know your kid and listen to them. But putting that time in is worth it.
So remember, the next time you are playing a game, checking over your kids work, or just hanging out with them, and they mess up, tell them it is ok. We really do all make mistakes. Try not to dwell on them, only learn from them. Experiment. Fail. Try again. It is good for the kid and for the parent. They are more resilient than we often give them credit for, and so are we. You might even learn something along the way.