Resilience: The Necessity of Failure

In the 1990’s the term “helicopter” parents became widely used. These parents would hover over their children, paying careful attention to all the details of their life. They were often seen as controlling, overly involved in their children’s problem solving and sometimes enmeshed with their kids. Now, there is another category for overly involved parents, “lawnmower” parents. These parents mow everything down in the path of their children in order to provide them an avenue to attain all that the child and/or parent wants for their “success.” This was most recently witnessed in the college admission bribery scandal.

The root action of these parenting styles is love and wanting the best for their children. There is no harm in wanting the best for your children. There is absolutely no shame in love. There is an issue, though, with what these parents are not teaching their children. By taking away struggle, failure, and challenge, parents are harming their children’s futures. Parents believe they are helping their children to be successful, but are in fact hampering their growth. If a child grows up without understanding how to bounce back from failure, criticism, and/or defeat, they will be ill prepared for the difficult tasks in life. Without repeated circumstances of trying something, failing and then re-trying it, children are missing the building blocks of persistence and resilience.

In addition to not learning tenacity, our children are also developing great anxiety over things they don’t think they can do perfectly the first time, doing things on their own, and making mistakes. If you have grown up in a family culture where everything is done for you, you didn’t get the opportunity to learn your own agency. This missed opportunity for self-mastery shows up as paralyzing fear to try new things, and/or a fear of failure.

Unfortunately, as a culture this is becoming a widespread issue. Colleges and companies are seeing this more and more. Fear of failure is creating so much anxiety that there are now classes, coaching and resilience building fairs at colleges and corporations. Managers and administrators are having to coach young adults through anxiety and fear that interfere with productivity. The percentage of college students dropping out due to feeling unprepared is increasing, with mismanaged emotional regulation and time management being primary issues.

How do we change this cultural pattern of fearing failure?

Embrace and Encourage Taking Risks – When we or our children are faced with a task that seems daunting, we must first step toward the task. Attempt the task and try to figure it out. Often the only way out of a situation is through it. We must not avoid the task or have someone else do it for us. It is important to try new things at least once. It is important to challenge ourselves.

Learn Emotional Regulation – But what if I fail? Learning to internally console ourselves after a failure is an important step in reducing anxiety and decreasing fear. Learning how to reframe failure is one way we learn to regulate our emotions. You will fail. Your child will fail, but that is okay. We must learn to see failure in a different light. Failure will not be the only thing that defines you. It is a hill, not a mountain; a pond, not an ocean; a step, not the whole marathon.

Building Our Resilience – When we try things, fail, and bounce back, we gain understanding of our own successes and failures. We build a resume of experiences to draw upon the next time we go to attempt something. This resume helps with our resilience. If we know we have gotten through something before, we are more inclined to believe we will again, and again.