Parents can teach their children some really positive and some damaging lessons about failure.
I will share with you three mistakes I made that taught my daughter to fear failing and, how the Great British Bake Off helped me rectify those mistakes and build her resilience around failure.
Mistake number 1: I focused on her talent rather than her efforts
At the grand old age of 7 my daughter was labeled "gifted and talented" at French and music. I was beside myself with excitement, so I told everyone and their mother about this. I would constantly focus on how well she was doing at French and music without ever praising the effort she put into doing well.
Why not just praise talent or intellect?
When you just praise a child's intellect or talent you are sending a clear and potentially damaging message. It says, 'I value your intellect or talent as long as you keep growing that said intellect or talent.' This pressure to keep achieving can backfire because if they fail or do not achieve what is expected of them then their confidence and motivation can plummet. In a child's mind they are the disappointment. The failure is about them.
And this is what happened to my daughter. When she did not get a top mark for her music exam or her French test as was expected, she simply gave up. She was too scared to try. She saw herself as failure.
How can you praise the effort and not the results?
Let's say your child does well in a science test, saying something like 'that is an excellent score, I noticed that you spent quite a while reading about atoms, you were really focused, did you enjoy learning about them?' This helps them understand that the effort they put into the test was significant.
Mistake number 2: I did not ask many growth orientated questions about her failures
Asking questions that get your child to think about why they did not do so well is something I did not do as much of. I simply asked what the test was about, without probing into why she did not do so well. As an example, when a child does not do so well in an area they usually excel in, you might ask 'How long did you study for?' 'What did you find difficult?' or saying something like 'I noticed you did not practice for very long'. This can help them understand why they did not do as well, it hints at what they need to do next time to improve and helps them understand that they have control over the way they recover from failure.
Bake Off lessons number 1 and 2 in practice:
At age 16 I realised that my daughter was too afraid to fail or try, she was not reaching her potential. So I started to praise her effort. We loved watching the Great British Bake Off and would often rush into the kitchen and bake a cake. I would praise the effort she put into baking cakes that were hard as rocks whilst asking her why she thought they were turning out like that. She started to learn that it was okay to fail and that there would be no catastrophe. She learned to keep trying until she mastered baking lovely cakes.
I asked her if she would ever apply to the Great British Bake Off. She said no because she could not bear not being good enough. Work was still needed, as the fear of failing was very much in her mind.
Mistake number 3: I became overinvested in her talent and intelligence
When parents are overinvested in their child's talent or intelligence it reinforces the message that they are only really valuable as long as they continue achieving. In my case, it was all about what my daughter achieved rather than how she achieved it.
How can you become less invested in your child's talent or intelligence?
First and foremost, ask yourself why your child's achievements are so important to you. Is it to make you feel good about yourself and make yourself look good to others? This is an uncomfortable yet important question to ask yourself. Most parents want their children to be the best. This is without question but it's important to realise that being the best is different from doing the best you can. Let your child see that they are much more than their talent or intelligence by once again talking about the effort they put into things.
Key: Invest in the process of effort rather than the talent or intelligence
More lessons from the Bake Off
From the ages of 16 to 18, I focused on praising my daughter's efforts every single day. This helped her tap into her strengths and be less afraid to do her best without having to be the best.
At age 22, she applied to the Great British Bake Off. And, she got down to the final auditions, but, she did not get a place. Yes, she was extremely disappointed. But she was also able to see that she did not put as much effort into being herself as she could have. The lessons I taught her about effort helped her see why she may not have got a place and what she needed to do next time. Most importantly, she was determined there would be a next time. Success!
A year later she applied again, this took tenacity and strength and is not the behaviour of someone that was afraid of failing. I knew that the latter lessons I taught her had helped undo the earlier damage. This was an improvement for both of us.Once again she got down to the final auditions, but she was not chosen. Yes, she was disappointed, but she knew she had put every bit of effort into the audition process.
She also got to see that even with all the effort in the world, sometimes you will fail at something anyway.
She was okay with that.
Will there be a third time?
Well, she's thinking about it so we'll have to wait and see.