Fear of failure among children in America today is at epidemic proportions. Fear of failure causes children to experience debilitating anxiety before they take a test, compete in a sport, or perform in a recital. It causes them to give less than their best effort, not take risks, and, ultimately, never achieve complete success.
Cause of Fear of Failure
Children get this destructive perspective on failure from American popular culture. Popular culture defines failure as being poor, anonymous, powerless, unpopular, or physically unattractive. On television and in the movies, the losers—nerds, unattractive people, poor athletes—are teased, bullied, and rejected. With this definition of failure, popular culture has created a culture of fear and avoidance of failure. It has conveyed to children that if they fail, they will be ostracized by their peers and branded as losers for life!
Parents Make Things Worse
Many parents have fallen under American popular culture’s spell of failure as well. They’ve compounded the harm that failure can inflict on children by also connecting their own love and approval with it. The message children get is “I won’t love you if you get bad grades.” They come to see failure as a threat to their personal and social standing.
The Stigma of Failure
There is no greater stigma in American popular culture than being labeled a loser. The expression loser has become an oft-used and enduring symbol in popular culture. To be called a loser is, to paraphrase a well-known sports cliché, worse than death because you have to live with being a loser.
Children learn that they can avoid failure three ways. First, children can simply not engage in an activity in which they fear failure. If children don’t participate, they’re safe from failure. Injury, illness, damaged equipment, forgotten or lost materials, apparent lack of interest or motivation, or just plain refusal to take part are common ways in which children can avoid failure and maintain their personal and social esteem.
Second, children can avoid failure by failing in an activity, but protecting themselves from the failure by having an excuse—“I would have done well, but I just didn’t feel like it” or “I would have done just fine, but the teacher was totally unfair.” This behavior is called self-defeating behavior. Because their failures were not their fault, children can’t be held responsible and popular culture and their parents must continue to accept and love them.
Third, many children don’t have the luxury of not taking part or coming up with excuses, for example, children can’t just not go to school. So another way that children can avoid failure is to get as far away from failure as possible by becoming successful. But children who are driven to avoid failure are stuck in limbo between failure and real success, what I call the “safety zone,” in which the threat of failure is removed, for example, they have a B+ average or finish in the top 10 in their sport, but they are unwilling to intensify their efforts to fully achieve success.
The Value of Failure
Failure is an inevitable—and essential—part of life. Failure can bolster the motivation to overcome the obstacles that caused the failure. It shows children what they did wrong so they can correct the problem in the future. Failure connects children’s actions with consequences which helps them gain ownership of their efforts. Failure teaches important life skills, such as commitment, patience, determination, decision making, and problem solving. It helps children respond positively to the frustration and disappointment that they will often experience as they pursue their goals. Failure teaches children humility and appreciation for the opportunities that they’re given.
Of course, too much failure will discourage children. Success is also needed for its ability to bolster motivation, build confidence, reinforce effort, and increase enjoyment. As children pursue their life goals, they must experience a healthy balance of success and failure to gain the most from their efforts.
To protect children from popular culture’s destructive definitions of failure, give them positive definitions of failure. I define failure in ways that encourage children to value rather than fear it.
Failure is not living in accordance with their values. When children cheat, lie, or don’t take responsibility for themselves, then they fail
When children buy into popular culture’s definition of success, for example, being overly concerned with popularity or appearance, then they fail.
Failure involves children not giving their best effort, making poor decisions, and not doing what is in their best interest.
When children look for the easy way out, are influenced by peer pressure, and act in ways that can hurt them, then they fail.
Failure also means treating others poorly and not giving back to their families, communities, and the world as a whole. When children are selfish, uncaring, and disrespectful of the world in which they live, then they fail.
Giving children a definition of failure that takes away the fear liberates them from that fear. It also frees them to strive for success without reservation, to explore, take risks, and vigorously pursue their dreams. Children will know in their hearts that some failure is okay and in no way a negative reflection on themselves as people. Finally, failure will ultimately enable them to achieve success, however they define it.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., Psychology, has work with young people, parents, and educators for more than 27 years. Jim is the author of 14 books, four of which are parenting books. Jim has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, Fox News Channel, ABC’s World News This Weekend, and the major television network affiliates around the country. He has participated in many radio shows. Dr. Taylor has been an expert source for articles that have appeared in The London Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Outside, Men’s Health, and many other newspapers and magazines. Jim lives north of San Francisco with his wife, Sarah, and his daughters, Catie and Gracie. To learn more, visit www.drjimtaylor.com.