Leadership in Parenting: Responding to Setback & Failure
This series is about viewing parenting from the perspective of leadership and developing future leaders. Being a parent is the most basic—and vital—of all leadership roles, though it’s rarely thought of that way. Parenting is the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I wish someone would have oriented me to this perspective before I became a father. It would have helped me avoid being in reaction (or sometimes survival) mode and given me more vision on what I was doing and how I was doing it. I hope parents find it helpful.
We learn more from failure than from success.
That’s not just happy talk, it’s literally true. Our brains are contrast and pattern machines. When we encounter something we expect (like success), very little learning occurs. When we encounter something we didn’t expect (failure) it creates a contrast that (along with the negative emotional experience) imprints powerfully on our brains.
But the learning is usually offset by the negative emotions and shame we attach to failure. We can let failure shape an eternally pessimistic self-identity, or we can take the perspective of Thomas Edison who, after multiple attempts at finding a workable light bulb filament, claimed, “I didn’t fail. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
“I didn’t fail. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (Thomas Edison)
And when it comes to leading others through failure and setback, we can either set them up for growth or make them paranoid and afraid to take risks.
“And Your Point Is…?”
Your children are not failures
if when they fail.
Your children are not failures
ifwhen they fail.
The challenge in parenting is to focus more on the learning that happens in failure, rather than the failure itself. You want to avoid at all costs the appearance that your love and approval for them is conditional to their success. It takes a great deal of motivation and authentic encouragement. Help them to realize the learning, and work to convince them they can do better and that you believe in them.
Remember: Both failure and success are outcomes. Focus on the processes and decisions that produce the outcome, and avoid putting too much emphasis on the results. When kids learn what leads to success, praise them for that.
The challenge in parenting is to focus more on the learning that happens in failure, rather than the failure itself.
The Big Picture
Coach Bret Bielema once had a player who believed his mistakes cost the team a win, and he was not getting past it. Bielema told him that it’s good to own your mistakes, but don’t take out a 30-year mortgage. It’s a good word.
Failure (and for that matter success) isn’t an appropriate identity label, especially from a parent to a child. Steer away from reinforcing either, and instead reinforce their value to you.
“It’s good to own your mistakes, but don’t take out a 30-year mortgage.” (Bret Bielema)
Your Next Step
What can you do to convince your children of their value apart from their success or failure?