When I was a little boy, there were several “dirty words” my parents told me never to use. “Failure” was not one of them. As parents, we are sometimes so focused on protecting our children from disappointment that we may be doing them a disservice. What if my child tries out for our town’s travel team and doesn’t make it? What if my child doesn’t get the lead in the school play? How will my child handle the rejection if he – or she – is not accepted into private school?
In his book, Nurture Shock, author Bo Bronson writes about the importance of teaching our children how to take healthy risks, how to embrace challenges, and how to deal with things that don’t go our way. According to Bronson, recent studies show that the fear of failure has started to outweigh the risks children are willing to take in order to succeed. This unwillingness to take risks makes children afraid to explore the world around them and engage in healthy risk-taking behaviors that are so important in their development. As they grow older, some children do not gain the skills necessary to navigate and compete in the real world. When something doesn’t come easy, the tendency is to give up rather than try harder. Failure becomes devastating, instead of a stepping stone to a larger goal.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can teach our children is to give it your all and enjoy the journey, regardless of the outcome. Encouraging our children to take healthy risks provides them with opportunities to grow and to learn by their mistakes as well as their successes. When the emphasis is on the process and the effort, the results usually take care of themselves – and are often, if not always, the results we had hoped for.
While I openly admit my bias, as a camp professional I can think of no better place for a child to “experiment” and take healthy risks than at camp. Camp creates a safe and nurturing environment, but forces a child out of his comfort zone on a daily basis. Whether it’s walking into a bunk full of strangers on opening day, attempting to scale a 50-foot climbing wall, or putting on a life jacket to try waterskiing for the first time, camp presents challenges that aren’t solved in the moment. They take time and effort and sometimes we stumble, but if we persevere, the results confirm that the risk is worth it and we develop the self-confidence that helps us face the greater challenges that are sure to come our way.
Our desire to protect our children is instinctive and critical in their development. The need to know they are loved unconditionally and that their parents have a watchful eye over them – even though they may bridle at the notion as they reach adolescence. At the same time, it is essential that our children know we trust them to make tough decisions and take appropriate risks and that we have the confidence in them to know they are able to handle setbacks. As they gain the realization that failure is a normal part of the process, they become less afraid of failure and find the courage to overcome bigger obstacles.
Think of the risks you took in your own life, mindful but not cowed by fear of failure. Maybe it was having the nerve to approach the person who later became your spouse, walking into a packed boardroom to give a big presentation, buying your first home – or taking the biggest risk of all – having children!
Failure is unavoidable, but if we teach our children that failure is a temporary roadblock and not a dead end, then we prepare them to meet the challenges they will face throughout their lives and give them the tools they need to persevere through adversity.