by Marianne Vernacchia on 04/26/20


Would you believe through a healthy dose of failure and mistake making?

Although true for anyone, this article will focus on parenting and children. In an age when we endlessly strive to build our children’s self-esteem, we risk doing the opposite, or even building a “hollow” sense of self-esteem, by not allowing our children to make mistakes and experience failure. (Yes, that is a loaded word! More on that later.) Instead, we find a way to build them up, no matter what and strive to protect them by intervening or preventing the mistakes from being made in the first place. While backed by only the best of intentions, this can back-fire creating self-esteem not based on self-reliance or trust in one’s abilities, but instead based on a belief that others should take care of them, protect them, and make it easier for them. In other words, a sense of entitlement. While this may buffer our children from the cold, harsh realities of the world, it does not prepare them well for adulthood, real relationships and challenges down the road.

We live in a pressured, fast-paced and competitive world and we feel a need to prepare our children to succeed. In doing so, we may become over-involved in our children’s assignments, grades, friendships, free time, activities and play. As parents we have nothing but good intentions when helping with our kids’ with their difficult assignments, protecting them from potential consequences, even, sometimes, defending inappropriate behavior and mistakes. This is all done out of love...and trying to do better than our parents did. A noble endeavor, indeed!

But, have we gone too far in trying to provide our kids with a successful and perfect childhood? Has a loving, healthy childhood become confused with an overly protected one, where kids aren’t allowed to make mistakes, fall down or fail? How about the value of learning about their short-comings and problematic tendencies (we all have them!) facing them, and, hopefully learning to work with or through them? Have today’s kids been denied the chance to feel that horrible, sinking feeling of guilt and regret when they’ve done something “bad” or had the living daylights scared out of them when they get caught and realize the potential consequences they now face? Are they protected from ever being in these useful, learning situations? Worse yet, are they getting intervened on before it ever happens, thereby never gaining the first-hand knowledge that comes from making a wrong decision, an independent decision, learning what happens when they choose a certain path, learning how to right a wrong, get through difficult situations, or fix it when things go wrong?

I am not advocating we let our children completely fend for themselves. We certainly don’t want to watch them hurt others, themselves, or commit a dangerous or illegal act. Every child is different and there are various degrees of appropriate support for each child, but it’s important to know that hands-on helping or interfering isn’t always better. Ironically it can prevent resiliency and self-esteem from developing because the struggle and learning process that comes with a difficult situation isn’t ever experienced. Many children need a lot of intervening and oversight, especially those who struggle to see themselves in a positive light to start with, have a traumatic past, psychiatric or other developmental disorder. However, even children who need a lot of support benefit from being challenged, being held accountable, and having the space to make mistakes and overcome them at appropriate times and in safe ways.

This doesn’t mean we leave our children alone to flail and thrash around in the water for long periods of time, especially, when we can see that they are going to sink. It does mean that we don’t always need to jump in and save them immediately, as long as they are still reasonably safe and working at it. It means, we watch carefully, let them splash around, see if they start to use their arms and legs to swim, and monitor how they are doing on their own. If they go under for a minute and swallow some water, do they cough it up and keep going? That is

success right there! Have they been given enough instruction, and do they apply that and learn what their arms and legs can do? Can they find their way out and tread water on their own? Do they have the chance to self- correct without outside help? Do they eventually learn to move forward and become good swimmers? If so, this is gold! They will say, “I did it!” It will feel amazing! This is the stuff self-esteem is made of!

Struggling through a difficult situation, not knowing what to do, trying, failing, and trying something else, followed by reflecting on what did and didn’t work, and eventually figuring it out is all part of the learning process. It is nourishes a crucial feedback loop that builds problem solving capabilities, trust in one’s abilities, self-esteem and resiliency. The teen years, especially, are about thinking for one’s self, figuring it out on one’s own, and balking at what mom and dad say in order to develop independence as an adult.

It may feel counter-intuitive, to allow your kids to fall down, make mistakes, or endure a “failure”, but if it is framed as a learning situation, a worthwhile set-back to be learned from, then it can be a valuable tool; even one that serves us better than a “success”. The word “failure” has a negative connotation and is usually couched in a ton of shame, but learning what doesn’t work is just as important as learning what does. A failure doesn’t have to be a shameful act. Sometimes, we do the right thing and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes we try our best, but we endure a failure. We also learn the most from situations that sting a bit. We remember painful experiences more because pain hurts! It tells us what we don’t want to have happen again, and we apply that learning going forward.

The key is balance! You want to point out and praise the positives, as this builds positive credits in the bank that they can draw from later when facing a consequence, making a mistake, or enduring a hardship. The ratio of positive to negative feedback should be much more on the positive side. A child who doesn’t get enough positive feedback doesn’t have a lot of self-esteem to draw from, and will not be able to withstand a lot of negative outcomes. When our children face unrealistic expectations, relentless and repeated failures, then there it is a much tougher battle to overcome and build self-esteem. This is a set up for shame and frustration that lead to a behavioral backlash. Instead, we need to tell children what they are doing right, praise them when they do indeed make a good decision AND allow them the opportunity to face mistakes with honesty and humility, not shame. Teaching a child how to honestly take responsibility for their actions, how to fairly face negative consequences, and how to learn from each “non-success” are key. It is through both positive and negative experiences that our children become independent, self-confident, good problem solvers. This will prepare them well for the challenges that life will eventually throw at them.

Below are some ideas to help build self-esteem in your children!

  • -  Let them vent and express their frustration or difficult feelings (this doesn’t mean you necessarily agree, but listen and try to understand, as they work it out and hopefully look at their part in it).

  • -  Tell them that you believe in them and their ability to figure it out and make a good decision.

  • -  Assign regular and achievable chores, household responsibilities, or expectations for them to become a dependable/reliable participant in the daily running of the household.

  • -  Give lots of hugs and acknowledge and praise them when they do a good job.

  • -  Hold them accountable with reasonable, age-appropriate consequences when they don’t.

  • -  Repeat the mantra: “I am the parent. My job is to be kind, but firm.”

  • -  Don’t come to the rescue right away (depending on your child’s age and situation. This could mean wait 5 minutes with a toddler, or it may mean wait 24 hours with an older teen)

  • -  Don’t call their teacher unless necessary. Instead brainstorm and ask your child what they can do to handle the situation directly.

  • -  Follow through with checking to see if your child did what they said they were going to do.

  • -  Don’t believe everything you hear. Rely on your instincts here. Your child COULD be bending the truth to avoid shame, or an undesired consequence. This is a normal, human reaction.

  • -  Set consequences that are natural/logical, sting, and are short-lived (depending on the situation). You want them to have a chance to learn from it and quickly correct the behavior. Long, drawn out consequences are typically not effective and can cause backlash.

  • -  Remind them, that they have good thinking, are smart, and have a good head on their shoulders.

  • -  Be sure to commend them pointing out successes, in any situation where they earnestly tried.

  • -  Wait a good amount of time, then ask if THEY would do anything differently, if they could do it over.

  • -  Ask them if they need any help in figuring it out, planning, etc., but don’t jump in and take it over.

  • -  Consult with a professional, if unsure, so as not to set your child up for an insurmountable failure, or too many failures, especially if they’ve been struggling a lot already.

  • © 2020 Marianne Vernacchia, MFT#35980 4990 Speak Ln., #100, San Jose, CA 95118 

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