There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized… It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us.
Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth 2011 Commencement Address
It is strange that a comedian’s words would resonate with me so much, especially bringing to mind two recent child development books that I’ve read [1,2] and an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on self-esteem. But they are all windows into this same myth that plague’s many parents: that building a child’s self-esteem is your most critical job as a parent and to do so means sheltering your child from all forms of failure.
We see this insane focus on over-protecting our children’s self-esteem everywhere. Everyone at a tournament gets a trophy; kids are taught that everyone is a winner; and praise is heaped upon a child for every single accomplishment no matter how mundane. I hear principals say that every child is a genius. It is simply inadequate any more to say that everyone is a human being deserving of respect and love, and now we tell the lie that every child is remarkable in every way. However, kids are not stupid, and they know that when the word “genius” is used in this way, it simply becomes devoid of meaning anymore; it becomes cliché.
Somehow we have gone from “everyone needs to do their best”, to “everyone is the best”. And even more bizarrely, our children are told that the way to be the best is by never failing, or at least never admitting to it. These may not be words that are said directly, but they are the lessons learned. By focusing so much on the result and the accomplishments, rather than the effort, we reinforce in our children this conception that failure is to be avoided at all costs.
Research in child development has shown a couple of things in regards to this topic. First, it is not at all clear that there is a self-esteem crisis in our children nor that it is the root of most of their problems. If anything, this over focus on self-esteem has created a more narcissistic generation. Second, praise has been shown to have an inverse relationship to performance; the more you praise a child, the less they succeed.
The problem is that if we are constantly praised for our success, and not our effort, we start to tie up our identity and self-worth in the results. Failure, rather than becoming a lesson, becomes terrifying. If we are not the best or don’t always succeed, then it is something fundamentally wrong with who we are and our value as a person, or so we think. The fear of failure then becomes paralyzing in itself, and we miss the most important lessons in life, the hardest won: those of our failures.
The end effect is tragic. Being unable to overcome the fear of failure, we stop taking risks that would allow us to do truly great things. We take the safe path, and we never explore other areas of growth and opportunity that make us uncomfortable. Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) myself, I have struggled hard with perfectionism. My identity was wrapped up in my perceived intelligence and specifically my mathematical abilities. Getting a 4.0 in 3 college degrees was not enough. It was not enough to have all A’s but I had to beat everyone else’s A in my classes to be satisfied. Most people look at my college career and naturally think that I took the hard path, but in reality it was the easy path. It’s not that I didn’t work hard or challenge myself in those classes. Math was the easy choice because it is where I knew I could succeed. I avoided general education and non-science/math courses as much as possible because it threatened my GPA. I was afraid of failure. As interested as I was in history, philosophy and other subjects, I never took more of those courses than required. I took my easy path. And as I look back on life, I see I have done that far too many times and missed many opportunities. Just now, in my mid-thirties, am I beginning to overcome the fear of failure.
So do I want my kids to be failures; of course not. However, to truly succeed and excel in life, you must have failures as well. I do not want to rob my children of the lessons that failure teaches or allow the fear of it to close doors of opportunity for them. Using these lessons of science and my own past failure to accept failure, I will teach my kids a new way. I will praise the effort, regardless of the outcomes. I will not sugarcoat their failures and mistakes, but instead I will make them face their failures head on and help them through it. I will not let them always take the easy or comfortable path. And in the end, I will help them to succeed at life by learning to fall gracefully along the way.
- Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurtureshock: new thinking about children.
- Mercer, Jean A., A. (2009). Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings.