Family Matters

Fearing our Children Will Fail

Lisa Leslie Henderson writer

Failure. It’s a part of life from cradle to grave as much as we try to avoid it. It’s the reason certain species have not survived, and the reason others have. For children, failure is a big part of learning how to master the rhythm of life and foster life-long skills. Why, then, are so many parents trying to remove failure from their children’s experiences?

“It’s hard to watch your child go through difficulty,” explains Wellesley-based family therapist, Susan Patchen, LICSW. “It’s all you can do not to intervene. Helping seems to solve their frustration at the moment but, long term, it is not our job as parents to protect our children from every disappointment; rather, it is to help them get through disappointments when they occur.”

In our achievement-oriented society, however, having difficulty, much less experiencing failure, is not in vogue. It starts at the top—compensation in corporate America, for example, is based on successes, not disappointments, even if they eventually produce breakthroughs—and this approach trickles down to our children, who often experience childhood as a performance rather than a trial- and error-based learning experience. The irony is that this hyper-emphasis on external success can actually undermine children’s efforts, making them more afraid of failure, keeping them from the very success we want for them.

Fear of Failure on the Rise
“As the pressures of modern life have increased, so have the incidents of ‘fear of failure’ in children,” says Patchen. Central to an unhealthy fear of failure is the belief that terrible things will happen to children if they are anything less than successful, whether that outcome be disappointing their parents, not getting into a top-notch school, being an outcast among their peers, or experiencing some other form of embarrassment. As a result, avoiding failure is of paramount importance.

Limited definitions of success exacerbate this fear. “We live in a performance-based culture, where success is defined as being perfect—gifted in every area,” says Patchen. “The message of ‘you can be anything’ has morphed into ‘you must be everything’.” Kids are especially vulnerable to this ideal, as they have not had enough life experience to keep expectations in perspective. “We set our children up for an impossible task,” she adds.

We Sow What We Reap
Some students’ response to heightened expectations is perfectionism, needing to get straight A’s, start on Varsity teams, star in the school musical, and save the world, all before they apply to college. Well-meaning parents often inadvertently contribute to their children’s perfectionism by hiring trainers, tutors, and coaches to help them meet these expectations. While perfectionists are rewarded in our society—they are often high achievers—the downfall is that they are rarely happy. After all, who can be perfect all the time?

Another manifestation of unrealistic expectations is unethical behavior: cheating, hiding mistakes, or blaming others. A recent study found that intense competition is lowering the stigma attached to cheating, favoring an ends-justify-the-means mentality among young people; in fact, 75 percent of high school students surveyed admitted to having cheated at least once on a test. Covering up mistakes or placing the blame on others, whether it is the “lousy” coach or the “unfair” teacher, keeps egos intact, away from the possibility of failure. Opting out of the game either with a lack of effort or more rebellious, self-sabotaging behaviors is another technique to avoid failing.

Experience is the Best Antidote
“Everyone needs some degree of fear of failure,” explains Thomas Hughart, Director of the Guidance Department at Wellesley High School. “It’s intrinsic to motivation in life. We all fail. It can’t be avoided. You don’t decide not to learn to ride a bicycle just because you are going to fall off in the process.”

Normal development has ups and downs and periods of intensified insecurity, but the vicissitudes are heightened these days by unrealistic expectations and a lack of experience with disappointment.

“Many kids’ first experience with substantial “failure” happens in high school when they don’t get the lead part in the musical, don’t make the cut for the soccer team, or don’t get placed in a higher-level class,” says Hughart. “For better or for worse, we have protected children so much from disappointment in elementary school—everyone gets a trophy—that they don’t have much experience with getting though difficulty when they get to high school.”

Unfortunately, this developmental lag means that first experiences with substantial disappointment are taking place at a time when hormones are running high, social pressure is mounting, kids are well enmeshed in the process of questioning who they are and what is important to them, and the pressure is on for academic and extracurricular achievement. All combined, it is a potent set of circumstances.

What Can Parents Do?
• Focus on Our Own Views of Failure. “The best thing that parents can do for our children is to work on our own feelings about failure first,” says Patchen. Our own fears—acknowledged or not—strongly influence our parenting messages. “Failure is a part of life,” Patchen says. “If we can embrace it for ourselves, we can help our kids though theirs.”

• Recognize Our Own Contribution. “Kids are not born with these expectations, they learn them,” says Hughart. And while expectations are systematic—reinforced by our schools, communities, and the media—examining the messages we are really giving, beyond our spoken words, is key. Our own mixed feelings and conflicting desires for our children can put them in an impossible bind.

• Keep College in Perspective. Imagine measuring a child’s success by a single event whose value is overestimated. Sounds crazy, but that’s what we do regularly. “The chosen few—we have got to get beyond it!” exclaims Hughart. Research shows, over and over again, that success is not related to where a student goes to college. It is performance that matters, not pedigree.

“Once students and their parents understand that there are many fabulous colleges out there where students can get a terrific education,” Hughart continues, “they can get rid of the all-or-nothing point of view that is so damaging.”

• Make Room for Mistakes in Your Home. “Parents have to make it okay for kids to make mistakes,” says Hughart. “Use your dinner table. Talk about these issues.” The news is filled with stories of people falsifying numbers, hiding negative results, concealing errors, and often blaming the victims of their actions to avoid facing failure. “Modeling your own healthy reaction to mistakes is even more valuable,” says Patchen.

• Expect the Important Things from Your Children. Parental expectations are important; they act as roadmaps for what we value. But here is the caveat according to Patchen: “We expect too much of the wrong things from our children. Our focus is on external measurements of success and not enough on the development of children’s own internal sense of self.”

While academic and extracurricular achievement contributes to our children’s sense of self in so far as it builds self-esteem, over-valuing it can crowd out the equally important work of gaining self-knowledge and emotional competency during childhood. “We want our children to become independent and self-reliant people who know themselves and are able to make choices that are in line with their personal goals, values, and skills,” says Patchen. This takes time, reflection, exploration, and the risk of failure.

“This does not mean that we abandon our children,” says Hughart. “It means we support them through the ups and downs of life so that they can live without excessive fear and limitations.”

What’s the cost of young people circumventing development of these life skills? Patchen has observed “kids who are crippled by a sense of always falling short, of being a disappointment,” and ultimately becoming people “who are not realizing their hopes and dreams.”

Kids can bounce back. “It is amazing to see the change in young people after they have had more relaxing summers,” says Patchen. Hughart, who works with a broad range of high schoolers, is equally encouraging, “I am impressed with these kids [because] they reassure me that the world is going to be okay. The majority work hard, care for each other, and have a sense of the world beyond them. They are much more than their SAT scores.”