Why it is good for our children to fail

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The other day my nine-year-old tripped over as she was walking up our carpeted stairs. I screamed, yelled "Oh my god, this is terrible!", ran to her and cradled her in my arms.

Except I didn't, of course. That would have made it much worse. I looked up from my computer, saw she was fine, said lightly, "Ooops! You'll be okay!" and got back to work. Every single parent in the world would understand my response. Underplaying a minor setback is the best way to help our kids move through it.

So why then do we overplay minor setbacks by trying desperately to prevent them?

Yesterday, it was revealed that a junior AFL league in Victoria has capped score margins for players, to prevent large losses. According to the Sunbury Leader, margins for games will be capped in all under-12 to under-16 grades in the Riddell District Football League, and goalkickers and best players will no longer be recorded.

The rules have been bent to encourage weaker players to continue playing AFL; presumably, kids who lost by large margins were becoming discouraged and quitting the game.

The organisers of Riddell District Football League have been accused of wrapping the young players in cotton wool, and the argument is fairly predictable. When kids are protected from failure, opponents claim, they are denied the opportunity to develop resilience. Real life is filled with disappointment and failure, and so kids need to learn coping strategies now.

The reverse of the cotton wool argument is predictable, too. Kids have plenty of time to learn resilience, the reasoning goes, so why not let them enjoy childhood for a little bit longer?

Both arguments have merit, but both fail to recognise the most significant issue. By shielding our kids from painful situations, we are not just denying them the chance to learn resilience; we are actually making the painful situations much worse.

Consider the example of my daughter falling over. If I'd screamed and yelled she would have assumed she was in danger, and reacted with fear and pain. But as I stayed calm, and demonstrated that it was no big deal, she took it in her stride. She stood up, brushed herself off, and continued up the stairs.


The same is true of other painful situations. Sure, it's disappointing to be beaten in a footy game by 100 points. And if we, the adults, yell and cry and carry on, the kids will no doubt feel crushed. But if we shrug our shoulders, say, "Oh well, that's a shame, but it's no big deal," then that's what our kids will believe.

If, on the other hand, we bend the rules to avoid the situation altogether, we are teaching our kids that losing by a large margin is too shocking a situation to experience. We are effectively yelling "Oh my god, this is terrible!" We are conveying our belief that failure is appalling, and must be avoided at all costs.

And so how will our kids think about failure going forwards? They will regard it with fear and pain.

It's nonsense, of course. Failure isn't appalling. Failure is a perfectly normal part of life. And this is the message we should convey to our kids. We need to show them that failure simply isn't a big deal, not even when it's by a large margin. We need to let our kids fail, then say 'Oops! You're okay!' and get back to what we were doing.

We cannot protect our kids from failure, certainly not in the long term. What we can do, however, is to normalise failure so that it is not so scary and painful. Everyone falls over. Everyone loses. Everyone experiences disappointment.

The difference is only how we cope with it. Do we say "Oops, we're okay!" or do we fall apart?

It's not the margins that matter. It's our attitude to the margins. I hope the Riddell District Football League figure that out.