Helping Kids Learn From Failure
When my 13 year-old son was hired by one of our neighbors this summer, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for him. He could make a little spending money and hopefully become more responsible by watering plants, mowing, and feeding the cat for some neighbors who were going to be out of town off and on for a few weeks.
And mostly, it worked out great. He developed a good balance of work and play during the summer months and was able to pay for quite a few trips to the local ice cream place.
Until one day in late August. The neighbor had asked him to cover just one Monday right after school started. It should have been no big deal. But when the neighbor called me on Tuesday, I knew exactly what he wanted. Owen had completely forgotten to do the job he had agreed to do!
Immediately my heart sank as I realized that my son had failed – in a big way! As a mom, my first instinct was to smooth things over with the neighbor, maybe even handle it all myself so that Owen didn’t have to deal with the awkwardness and embarrassment. Instead, I handed the phone to my son and let him face the music, so to speak. He admitted his mistake on the phone and later talked the situation through with the neighbor.
Over the next few days, I had a chance to really process what had happened; my reaction to it, and the value of the experience for my son. I realized that when our kids fail, it’s so easy to do the wrong thing instead of the good and necessary things. Looking back, I can see that several several steps were especially helpful to ensure that Owen learned from his mistake.
Own Up – As a parent (and maybe especially a mom), I REALLY wanted to somehow make the situation better for Owen. I wanted to offer excuses for his failure (he had school, practice, and homework) and maybe even bail him out. It can seem like the kind and protective thing to do, but it’s so destructive for our kids. They desperately need to own their mistakes; to say “I was irresponsible, foolish, or lazy.” When we try to go before and behind our kids, smoothing their way and their wake, we don’t do them any favors.
Accept the Consequences – Owen did NOT want to have that phone conversation with the upset neighbor. A hard and awkward conversation was part of the consequence, though, of not doing his job. When our kids fail, there are all kinds of consequences – bad grades, detentions, sitting the bench, marred reputations. As parents we need to resist the urge to remove the consequences for them. It’s okay, and actually helpful, to let kids sit for awhile in the consequences of their actions.
Talk it Through – My husband and I were intentional about helping our son see the lessons that could be learned from this situation. We actually named them for him. It’s not enough for kids to admit their mistakes and suffer the consequences; they need to see the value in their failures. They need us to say that failures can be good and valuable if we let them teach us something. Owen needed to know that someday he could be thankful for this situation because of the lesson he learned.
Offer Grace – When I talked to the neighbor the next day, I was overwhelmed by the grace and forgiveness he offered to Owen. He had every right to be angry but instead responded with gentleness to our son. He truly wanted this to be a good lesson for Owen, and he invited him over that evening to talk about ways to make sure that it wouldn’t happen again. Our neighbor is committed to investing in our son even though he failed. He even asked Owen to take care of the cat again the next week (possibly against his better judgement).
School is just starting, and our kids are all going to fail, in small and big ways, over the next few months. They’ll forget to study for tests, leave their soccer cleats at home, make ridiculous choices at school, or drive over the speed limit. Instead of seeing these failures as a source of embarrassment to our wounded pride, let’s use them to help our kids grow and mature. Our first instinct as their parents is often to ask, “How can I fix this?” Instead, maybe we should ask, “What can he learn from this?” Life is not all success and praise, and our kids’ failures have the power to teach them important lessons.
P.S. – Don’t worry about the cat – he was completely fine (thank goodness!).
P.S.S. – Owen read and approved this post. If you know him in real life, be gentle.