Psychologists and educators generally agree that children need to be allowed to experience failure in order to build healthy self-confidence and resilience. In theory, I wholeheartedly concur and have offered that advice myself, but there is something about the term “fail” that has always bothered me. Failure is an adult perception
, reflecting a win-lose outlook on struggle that infants and toddlers don’t naturally share.
Where we see failure, children see themselves temporarily stuck in a challenging process. They’re open to absorbing all that it teaches them and are either satiated with that knowledge and move on, or they decide to continue and seek more.
The delightful child is these photos is 15-month-old Isabel. I was entranced by her activity in our parent-infant class that day. She spent over half an hour exploring three objects: a small bowl, a plastic chain, and an empty gelato container. She opened and closed the lid (“unsuccessfully” the first couple of tries) and worked at pouring the chain into the bowl and then back again into the container, which was hard to close with the chains inside unless they were arranged just right. Isabelle wasn’t daunted. She has a bold, vivacious personality, and her single-minded focus on this activity took me a little by surprise, particularly with all the distractions in the room (several other families entering and finding their seats, etc.). She was intensely engaged, but also relaxed and calm. In that moment, I would love to have read her mind.
For very young children, an adult’s concept of success isn’t a goal or even a consideration. Their focus remains on “now,” which is fully engaging and enough. Free of self-imposed expectations, their process is pure and infinitely more compelling than the end result. And that’s what life is to them: a moment to moment learning process to experience and share with loved ones. They have no concept of failure until we teach them one, which we inevitably do.
They learn through our attitudes toward success and failure and the attitudes of extended family, friends and teachers. They come to realize that there are standards they must live up to be appreciated, valued, celebrated, and even accepted. As these standards become part of our children’s learning process, they tend to restrict and impede what was once an easy, natural flow. A precious part of innocence is lost, and an extraordinarily powerful and effective mindset for learning is thwarted.
Infant specialist Magda Gerber’s mindful approach to parenting can help our children retain some of their healthy curiosity and open-mindedness toward challenge and struggles. Here are some of the specifics:
We create an environment that encourages our child’s safe, uninterrupted, open-ended play.
We trust babies to self-direct their play and learning. Research shows that young children are, without question, the experts in this field.
We provide open-ended toys and materials and don’t show children how to use them or indicate that there is a right or wrong way.
We practice sensitive observation so that we can become aware of and learn to let go of the mind-clutter of our own feelings, projections, and judgments. Our goal is to gain a clearer understanding of experiences through our child’s lens rather than imposing our own.
(These are starting to sound a whole lot like Magda Gerber’s RIE principles, which are available HERE.)
We take care not to overpraise or say or do anything that would convey a succeed/fail attitude.
We keep in mind that “helping” does not mean fixing or doing it for our child. When our help is requested, we offer our calm, patient, trusting, and supportive presence, acknowledging our child’s struggles. “That’s tough to figure out, isn’t it?” We perceive the expression of frustration as healthy — not a crisis — and we only intervene physically if frustration builds, and then we do so minimally. (I share a step by step description of the minimal intervention process and several video illustrations in 4 Best Ways to Raise Problem Solvers)
These guidelines apply to all learning processes, including social interactions. For example: when a toddler innocently removes a toy from another’s hand, or offers a child a toy, neither child has succeeded or failed. They’re both learning how to engage.
When the focus is off of success as a goal, the fear of failure is nonexistent. It’s true that children need to fail by our standards to build confidence and resilience, but they’re born quite happy to do that.
Here’s a podcast that offers advice and support for dealing with our children’s frustration:
(Thank you so much to Yeni and Isabel for the inspiring photos!)