What fear exceeds that of a fear of spiders? Atychiphobia, or fear of failure! And it’s not just adults – Psychology Today found that the younger generation has absorbed this adult fear, so much so that it is at “epidemic proportions.” Yet, it’s common knowledge that J.K. Rowling was turned down by many publishers before she found someone to publish the now bestselling Harry Potter series. Thomas Edison made 1,000 failed attempts at inventing the light bulb, and when a reporter asked him how it felt to fail 1,000 times, he said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Failure doesn’t determine ultimate outcomes, but resilience does. One’s response to failure is indicative of future success. It is both an unavoidable and essential part of life.
Fear of failure manifests itself in several ways: withdrawal from activities, excusing poor performance by blaming others or saying “I didn’t even try”, or settling for average or less than what they are capable of. In young children, it can also manifest in meltdowns over mistakes, self-deprecating comments, and lack of interest in a previously loved activity.
How can we encourage our children to embrace their humanity, accept and learn from their mistakes, and to try, try again?
- Cultivate a close, supportive relationship with your child. Let them know that you will always love them, no matter what they do or don’t do. Engage them in stress and anxiety reducing activities (a little outdoor playtime, wrestling, drawing, reading out loud). The “single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.” [Harvard}
- Redefine failure: let your child know that true failure is when we don’t try our best and when we are not kind to others or ourselves. If they tried their best and are kind to others and themselves – then they have succeeded!
- Talk about and appreciate effort, not ability. Ability is usually an uncontrollable factor, meaning while we can hone our abilities, most of us are born with a predisposition to certain abilities. We cannot control this, but we can control the effort we exert at any task.
- Encourage self-compassion. This means, when your child fails, express sympathy, remind them that to fail is human, and appreciate the positive aspects of the work they completed.
- Analyze your expectations of your child. Do you view them as an individual or do you compare them to peers? Do you value their unique interests and abilities or do you see them as “mini-mes”? Are you embarrassed when they don’t perform as well as peers or as well as you expect? Do you find yourself praising ability over effort?
- Evaluate how you handle your own failures. What do your actions show your children about failure? What do your words tell your children? “I am such an idiot!” or “Oh, dear! It looks like that didn’t work out the way I hoped. I feel frustrated but next time I can try doing it a little differently.”
In the Montessori classroom, a love of learning is the goal rather than grades and performance. Teachers are careful to acknowledge effort and encourage a child to self-evaluate their work, rather than depend on praise from peers or teachers. Montessori classrooms do not use a grading system, and because children work independently, it is difficult for them to compare themselves to their peers. In addition, Montessori materials are self-correcting, which allows a child to receive feedback about their work, and adjust their response. Not having to fear failure in the classroom allows a child’s innate love of learning to flourish!