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The Benefits of Failure

by Neal Brown, Green Acres School, Head of School

In my childhood bedroom where my mother still lives outside of Boston, there are I believe three trophies with my name on them—two for teams I played on when we won our league championships, and one for a specific award I won for a lead role I held in my school’s musical. Conversely, my children, not yet in high school, already have at least triple this number of trophies displayed in their bedrooms. Most of these reflect their participation on a soccer team, whether that team won or lost, and whether or not they received any individual accolade. My point is not that my children aren’t good soccer players; it’s that children today internalize perverse lessons when they receive praise merely for showing up.

So in this climate when praise is omnipresent and failure is wrongly avoided at all cost, how do we as parents and educators nurture positive, confident, risk-taking, and resilient children? It’s clearly not by continuing a praise-for-simply-showing-up approach. A New York Times article this past week by author Ashley Merryman, “Losing Is Good for You,” captures this problem wonderfully and demonstrates the role that both winning and losing can and should play in children’s lives—and in adults’ lives too for that matter.

Merryman explains that when parents, coaches, teachers, and other adults overpraise children as a way to avoid failure, they are actually limiting children’s future potential. Children believe that they are being praised for their innate skill, or worse, they see through the charade rather than seeing true praise deriving from true effort. According to Merryman, “The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.” Why try hard, for example, when just showing up is good enough to garner trophies and praise?

And failure should be seen and communicated to children as a necessary part of life, not a reason to give up. Merryman writes, “When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed.” It hurts sometimes to see our children deal with the upset of losing or failing, but the best strategy overall is not an empty praise or a plastic trophy. Rather, it’s a meaningful conversation about how one set-back fits into the larger picture, and how one can truly earn deserved praise or victory in the long run.

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