On Healing 9/21/2009: Eventually, children must learn to fail

Dear Dan,
My young daughter is having a difficult year. She has been doing various sports and playing music for several years with much success. But this year, her first in high school, things are not going well. She has been getting low scores in her athletics compared to her friends. She also did not make the high school band while her friends were accepted.

She has always excelled at everything and now is beginning to feel that she is not talented and is becoming depressed and withdrawn.

What’s the best way to talk to her about this?
– Susan

Dear Susan,
I’ll get to the “how to talk to her” part in a minute, but let’s first figure out what the problem might be. What your daughter is experiencing is too common among many girls her age. Children that age are beginning to learn about their identity, how they are the same as and different from their parents and friends. One way they do this is by experiencing success and failure, watching peers, and having plenty of downtime where they can dream about the future.

In today’s world, however, not only do children not have enough downtime, they don’t have the luxury of failing. A generation ago, children’s afterschool activities were about play; now they are about achievement. And “average” has become the equivalent of failure! The goal is no longer to do your best; it’s about living up to some impossible standard.

This push for perfection comes from the family, school and peers, and the larger culture. I actually heard a car commercial last year that said: “Good enough is no longer good enough!” So what is it like for our children to grow up in that culture?

Overachieving girls often come from families whose parents model high achievement and self-sacrifice.

Failure is crushing to these children because it’s not about what they have or haven’t done, it’s about who they are. “If I fail,” many of these children think, “that means I am a failure.” The stakes are sky-high for each event.

Even when they succeed, the sense of accomplishment doesn’t last because there is always more to accomplish right around the corner.

At its extremes, perfectionism can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder and can lead to depression or eating disorders.

Susan, your daughter might not be this extreme at all. This could present you and your family with an unexpected opportunity to make some changes.

Of course your daughter has to learn the value of failure. Without it, she would never develop resilience. Surveys show that many of today’s children, when they hit the workforce, have plenty of knowledge but poor problem-solving skills and not much resilience. That’s because they have been pressured to achieve and protected from failure most of their lives.

So how do we teach your daughter that failure is OK? Not by lecturing! One way is through role modeling. Tell her about the failures in your life, past and current. You might also want to say what failure feels like and what it meant to you when you were younger and what failure means to you now.

Perfectionists often feel as though no one understands them, so don’t try to talk your daughter out of her feelings; it will just make her feel more isolated. Instead, help her give voice to the emotions underneath her thoughts about being a failure.

Remember, the fear of failure is about avoiding fear more than failure. Usually when children voice fear, we help them avoid it. But imagine the sense of freedom if she could give voice to her fear, and you could help her learn to tolerate that fear. And then when she does fail, you can talk about how she might feel bad, but she has less to be afraid of.

Here’s the big opportunity. Your daughter needs role models for hanging out and having fun. Everyone in the family has to be able to relax and laugh at themselves. Laughter is like chicken soup for perfectionism.

An early supervisor once said that the world is full of people trying to act like filet mignon when we know deep down we are meatballs! We need to stop trying to be the person we think we should be and spend more time hanging out with people we love.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.