Fear of failure among children in America today is at epidemic proportions. Fear of failure causes children to experience debilitating anxiety before they take a test, compete in a sport or perform in a recital. It causes them to give less than their best effort, not take risks and ultimately, never achieve complete success.
Cause of Fear of Failure
Children get this destructive perspective on failure from American popular culture. Popular culture defines failure as being poor, anonymous, powerless, unpopular or physically unattractive. On television and in the movies, the losers--nerds, unattractive people, poor athletes--are teased, bullied and rejected. With this definition of failure, popular culture has created a culture of fear and avoidance of failure. It has conveyed to children that if they fail, they will be ostracized by their peers and branded as losers for life!
Parents Make Things Worse
Many parents have fallen under American popular culture's spell of failure as well. They've compounded the harm that failure can inflict on children by also connecting their own love and approval with it. The message children get is "I won't love you if you get bad grades." They come to see failure as a threat to their personal and social standing.
The Stigma of Failure
There is no greater stigma in American popular culture than being labeled a loser. The expression loser has become an oft-used and enduring symbol in popular culture. To be called a loser is, to paraphrase a well-known sports cliché, worse than death because you have to live with being a loser.
Children learn that they can avoid failure three ways:
- Children don't engage in an activity in which they fear failure. If children don't participate, they're safe from failure. Injury, illness, damaged equipment, forgotten or lost materials, apparent lack of interest or motivation, or just plain refusal to take part are common ways in which children can avoid failure and maintain their personal and social esteem.
The Value of Failure
Failure is an inevitable--and essential--part of life. Failure can bolster the motivation to overcome the obstacles that caused the failure. It shows children what they did wrong so they can correct the problem in the future. Failure connects children's actions with consequences which helps them gain ownership of their efforts. Failure teaches important life skills, such as commitment, patience, determination, decision making and problem solving. It helps children respond positively to the frustration and disappointment that they will often experience as they pursue their goals. Failure teaches children humility and appreciation for the opportunities that they're given.
Of course, too much failure will discourage children. Success is also needed for its ability to bolster motivation, build confidence, reinforce effort and increase enjoyment. As children pursue their life goals, they must experience a healthy balance of success and failure to gain the most from their efforts.
To protect children from popular culture's destructive definitions of failure, give them positive definitions of failure. I define failure in ways that encourage children to value rather than fear it.
- Failure is not living in accordance with their values. When children cheat, lie or don't take responsibility for themselves, then they fail.
Giving children a definition of failure that takes away the fear liberates them from that fear. It also frees them to strive for success without reservation, to explore, take risks and vigorously pursue their dreams. Children will know in their hearts that some failure is okay and in no way a negative reflection on themselves as people. Finally, failure will ultimately enable them to achieve success, however they define it.