“What? Did I read that correctly? How can failure build self esteem? My child gets very upset when she fails at something. She brought home a D on a science test last week and her self-esteem was out the window! “
Allow me to explain.
First, try to recall your little one learning how to walk. He was crawling fairly well and now was beginning to pull himself up by a chair leg. Many times he fell back down before he actually brought himself to a standing position. But he kept trying. And then finally that first step, and many more attempts to walk. He might have gotten hurt here and there, bumping his head into a sharp corner, perhaps. Might have even cried. But did that stop him? No way! He was on his biologically-driven developmental course, and he was determined to walk. Did you worry about his self-esteem?
In The Optimistic Child, Martin Seligman describes a self-esteem movement that began in the United States about 40 years ago. Schools developed self-esteem programs. Every child was to succeed. They should all feel good about themselves no matter what. Teachers were reluctant to give low grades. lest children feel discouraged. But the result was not an improvement in self-esteem. Instead we have more depression in children and teens and lower self esteem than before this movement began.
Seligman points out that what really makes people feel good about themselves is accomplishments. This doesn’t mean blue ribbons or straight A’s necessarily, but acquiring any new skill. The child who learns to whistle after trying over and over again feels good about their new talent! If that child had concluded “I just can’t whistle, “ and gave up, he or she would not have had the opportunity to succeed.
It is the child’s (and parent’s) interpretation of failure that is important. A child who is struggling to understand division may have the interpretation “I’m not good at this; I must be dumb.” This statement suggests that he or she can’t do any better. But if she believes, “This is hard, so I’ll have to work really hard at it,” she is likely to persevere until she gets it.
In trying to protect children from the uncomfortable feelings of discouragement parents have sometimes contributed to that first interpretation. Imagine the following scene: a 7-year-old boy is trying to draw an airplane. “This looks stupid. I can’t do it!” Mother might say, “Oh, that’s the best airplane I’ve ever seen!” Her statement is inauthentic and her child knows it. He knows his airplane does not look like any real airplane. Also, she is telling her child that it is important that it’s “the best.”
The mother could instead validate her child’s feeling of discouragement. “I can tell you’re feeling crummy about your drawing. I feel that way, too, when I don’t do as well as I’d like. If you practice your drawing I’ll bet it will get better.”
Watch for the next opportunity to respond to your child’s feelings of discouragement. What could be a helpful way to respond to your child’s frustration?