At the end of my first semester of college, I waited impatiently for the release of final grades. My body was tense with a new anxiety— one I’d not experienced in high school. For the first time in my educational career, I was worried about my grades.
In high school, I was enrolled in honors and AP classes. I graduated with honors. I had scholarships and grants to attend college because of my grades, but in that first semester of college, I failed a class and the rest of my final grades— all except one— were mediocre at best.
In short, my GPA tanked, and I lost my scholarship. I was devastated. This was the first time that I’d experienced failure on such a scale and I didn’t know how to talk about it.
As a middle and high school student, I lived an insulated life and bad grades weren’t an option. My mother and extended family (we lived with my grandparents for much of my high school career) were always at my heels, making sure I’d completed my assignments and was doing well. Even in high school, there was a rule in my house that when I arrived home, I had to do homework before I could do anything with my friends or go out on my own.
My family insulated me so much that failure wasn’t something I’d experienced in my academic career. Today, I know that they were protecting me from the pain and heartache that can come with failure. Looking back, I’d much rather have developed the tools to deal with these challenges within the safety net of my childhood home than out in the world on my own.
I took my first failure in college as a character flaw. I hid it from my family because I was ashamed. It took me several years to realize that failure wasn’t a reflection of my character, but a vital part of life.
“How we filter and understand a challenge is essential,” says Amelia Bowen, a behavioral therapist practicing in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In the supportive and protective environment of a child’s home, she explains, parents have the ability to help kids frame failures— like bad grades, the end of a relationship or friendship, or a choice with negative consequences— in a way that is less about defeat and more about resilience. (For an evidence-based take on fostering resilience, Bowen recommends the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck.)
Let’s face it: watching our children move through challenging times and failures is hard on us. We hurt when our children hurt. That’s the whole reason we, as parents, try to keep our kids from experiencing the negative effects of failure. I’m sure that’s why my mother and extended family insulated me so much as a teenager.
But the truth is, we’re probably doing more harm than good when we try to create a buffer between our children and defeat or loss. In our digitally charged world, where kids are constantly bombarded with picture perfect bodies and lifestyles, failure, imperfection, and messiness all have increasingly negative connotations, and we’d be helping our children out immensely if we allow them to navigate the muddied waters of failure within the safe confines of our care.
Resilience, explains Bowen, can be taught, and parents have the unique opportunity to guide children toward resilience or toward defeat.
One of the common issues Dr. Avital Cohen, a psychologist in Atlanta, GA, says she sees is that parents seek out too many accommodations for their children, which can hinder a child’s ability to fully function on the college campus or in the workplace. This can lead to a child’s inability to deal with failure, much like my own seeing my bad grades as a character flaw rather than as a minor, temporary setback.
Dr. Cohen, who specializes in testing, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment planning for children from toddler age to college age, says that at some point, children have to learn how to do things for themselves, and it’s in this learning process that they develop a sense of individuality and responsibility. “There will, of course, be missteps, but within the safety net of the home, a child can learn to develop strategies to move past failure.”
Dr. Cohen and Bowen both provide ways parents can better help children cope with disappointments and struggles so that they’re equipped to deal with— and bounce back from— the inevitable failures that come with early adulthood.
In high school children have the mental and emotional capacity to start taking on more responsibility, and it’s in these years that trial and error are integral parts of the process of building resilience to deal with failure in the real world.
Rather than dealing with teachers and administrators themselves, Dr. Cohen says parents should allow teenagers to do so directly, unless, of course, the school specifically states that a parent is needed. This helps teenagers learn how to deal with consequences and how to navigate and manage relationships with authority figures.
“A child can’t learn how to ride a bike without trial and error,” says Dr. Cohen. “You can show a child one video after the next, and you can show them how you ride a bike, but at the end of the day, the child must get on the bike to learn for him or herself.”
This process of failing and trying again builds resilience and is especially important in the teenage years. When teenagers fail a class or don’t get into their intended college, for instance, parents can use the experience as a teachable opportunity, rather than trying to shield children from the disappointment.
One way a parent can help a child through the process of failure is by talking it out. “Let your kids know that every life has hard parts, and then talk through their particular circumstance,” says Bowen. Children are more apt to understand how failure informs and shapes life if parents are open and transparent about their own struggles. “Model the struggle,”
Bowen says. “Children watch how we react, and it informs how they react.” Our kids see us as role models and sometimes mistake our successes for perfection. If they see that we, too, have dealt with struggle, it normalizes failure.
Another way to help kids deal with failure is to reframe the experience, says Dr. Cohen. “The failure experience helps teenagers determine who they are and what they like,” she explains. “Let’s say a child fails an elective, but in the process, realized they didn’t really like that class anyway. Inherently, that’s not failure. That’s just information the child can use down the line.”
This concept definitely applies to my college experience. One of the classes I failed was marine biology. When I started college, I thought I wanted to pursue marine biology as a major. This one class immediately made me aware that the field wasn’t for me. In the long run, my F in that class wouldn’t mean much, but I couldn’t see that at the time.
Additionally, I was taking 16 credit hours, which turned out to be too much because I was also working. My mediocre grades had the potential to inform my class enrollment for the next semester (fewer credit hours so that I could focus in on the classes with more time and attention).
In retrospect, I can see how every misstep I made helped me find direction, but I spent several years “unlearning” the negativity that is often associated with failure. My goal as a parent is to provide a safe space for my sons to experience the fullness of failure and its benefits while still home so that they may be better equipped once they’re out of my care.