I failed my first term of secondary school miserably. And back then in Nigeria, there was no hiding – students were ranked based on their performance! (I think I came 77th out of about 100 students.) But what my mother said to me, I will never forget: “Don’t worry, this is only the beginning.” You see, with those simple words and her subsequent actions, she imprinted this priceless value on my impressionable 10-year-old mind: “This is a failure but you are not a failure. With each term, I expect you to do better until you reach the top.” And I did. I finished with one of the best results in the school.
Compare this with a close family friend, who also failed her first term at school. She complained to her father that she hated the school and some of the girls were witches, chasing her in dreams. (I kid you not!) Her father was infuriated, blamed the school for his daughter’s failure and transferred her. Then she failed again. He transferred her to another school – she failed again…
Did you know that learning to walk and talk are the most difficult physical tasks a person will perform in their lifetime? (If you doubt this, please ask an adult that’s re-learning to walk or talk.) Now imagine a toddler that is trying to walk. He falls down hard and starts to cry. His father rushes to pick him up. And as he comforts his son, says: “It’s okay. I’m here for you. I won’t let you fall again. I promise to carry you everywhere you want to go for the rest of your life.” No parent with their child’s best interest at heart would ever do that. In fact, mere moments after comforting his son he would put him back on the floor to fall (fail) and fall (fail) and fall (fail) again until he masters the art of walking.
Yet far too many times I have encountered children who are positive, motivated and confident when they are succeeding but become negative, defeatist and lazy when they find a task difficult or believe it to be beyond their ability. When these children are faced with a challenge, their minds immediately shut down and they reject the opportunity to learn because they do not like, and are not used to, the idea of failure. These children have not been taught to see failure and setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. They have not been taught to be resilient.
You see, everyone, rich or poor, male or female, will fail, often, at different points in life and to varying degrees. And every time we rush in to bail children out or allow them to give up when something gets tough, we’re acting like the father who refuses to let his child learn to walk. We are building and reinforcing a mindset that failure is a bad thing, a negative event, something to be afraid of, something to avoid at all costs.
The difference between people who succeed in life and those who don’t is not aptitude or opportunity, but resilience – the ability to recover from failure and adversity.
Some children even confuse their lack of grit with a lack of ability: “Yeah but so and so is not my strength, I’m happy with a C.” Or the classic: “I’m going to be a footballer. I don’t need to do well academically.” Well, in the words of a typical Nigerian mum, “the people getting straight A’s don’t have two heads!” As a teacher I have observed time and time again that the so-called “lower-ability” students who are consistently hardworking and resilient always outperform the entitled “I don’t need to work hard” high-ability ones, in the long run. I remind my own children every opportunity I get: “WHATEVER your hands find to do, do it excellently.” Ecclesiastes 9:10
How to help your child develop resilience
1. Don’t wrap your children in cotton wool
If you allow them to, children will blame everything and everyone else when things go wrong. Don’t make it okay to fail or protect them from the pain of failure by saying things like “It’s fine! Not everyone is good at Maths. I failed Maths too!” Teach them to accept responsibility and face up to the consequences of poor decisions. Encourage them to resolve the situation by thinking creatively and trying new strategies or approaches.
2. Don’t equate a child’s failure with who they are
An ‘F’ does not mean the child is dumb. Bad behaviour does not mean the child is bad. There is no belief or motivation to improve if you do that. When your child falls short of an expectation, lovingly reassure them of your confidence in their ability to do better.
3. Present challenges as exciting learning opportunities
Use genuine praise and give rewards when they overcome difficult challenges. Be careful here though – lavishing praise when you and the child both know he has put in very little effort can be counter-productive.
4. Be resilient yourself
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t throw your hands up in frustration and shout at your child because he hasn’t managed it on his second attempt! With each setback, consistently reinforce his ability to overcome it until he gets it right.
5. Educate yourself
You can start by watching this video by a world-renowned reseacher, Carol Dweck: How to help your child fulfil their potential