Monday, September 28, 2015

Helping kids overcome the fear of failure

Recently, a mother wrote to me after reading my book, The Good, the Bad and the PSLE, to say that her daughter has the same fear of failure as April in the book. She asked me how she could help her child overcome this. In case you didn't know, that reference in the book was based on Lesley-Anne and an incident I wrote about way back in 2008.

The fear of failure is very common, especially among high achieving kids. Some people feel this is so because high achieving kids have never tasted failure. It's probably true but that's only part of the picture. High achieving kids don't just seldom taste failure, many of them systematically go out of their way to AVOID failure. In other words, for this group of kids, not failing may have started as the cause of the fear but it also became a calculated outcome.

When Lesley-Anne was much younger, she would shy away from trying anything new. It took us a while to realise that anything new was frightening because she didn't know if she would be good at it and somehow, being good at whatever she did was so important to her (even if it was something as inconsequential as trying a new piece of equipment at the playground).

We constantly told her it was fine not to be good at something (who cares if you can't work the monkey bars??) Just try lah. But she wouldn't. She felt she would be judged for failing and the impending shame (which to us was imaginary) was too overwhelming. Contrast this with Andre who would give everything a go with gusto, and if he fell down or failed, he would just cry and blame the obstacle for being "too haaaaaaarrrd". Lesley-Anne internalised the failure whereas Andre attributed it to external circumstances.

According to this article, the fear of failure is one of the biggest fears in modern society among children. I'm no psychologist but I believe that this fear has to do with self-identity. In today's modern society where a person's self-worth seems to be wrapped around how smart/popular/beautiful/sporty/arty we are or how many trophies we can chalk up, failure is like a bad word.

Compounding this problem is our ridiculously narrow definition of success. In Singapore's context, it usually just means good academic scores. Kids here are almost always singularly judged by their academic achievements, which is so limiting for personal growth. Children who have consistently done well in school and regularly told how smart they are, run the danger of accepting this label thrust on them. They tend to fear bad grades like the plague because that threatens their self-identity.

Lesley-Anne, who is in a "branded" school, tells me she sees this around her all the time. After the release of exam results, there will always be students found crying, sometimes for a B grade. Like it's the end of the world. Whereas in Andre's neighbourhood school, it's a less common occurrence.

I can picture parents blaming the schools and education system for this. While I don't deny that our system plays a part in reinforcing the kiasu competitive spirit, I want parents to face the brutal truth: we are complicit in entrenching the fear of failure in our children.

I often hear of parents setting ridiculous standards for their children, like "you have to score 95/100 for Maths!" If the kid slogs enormously hard and amazingly manages to achieve this feat, the parent starts to think, "There, see? It's achievable!" And that then becomes the standard the kid has to thereafter live up to (or even improve on - "if you can get 95, you can get 100!") or forever be considered under-performing. We not only set them up to be afraid of failure, we set the bar for failure at such an unrealistically high level so anything less than perfection is considered failure. Any wonder our kids turn out this way?

Incidentally, once we set goals this way, we are undermining our teaching of other values like honesty and compassion. If we define the measure of success as a finite grade, then we're sending the message that this is the goal to be reached at any cost. Even if it means cheating in an exam. Or even more incomprehensible, if the benchmark for success is based on someone else's: "You have to beat Aaron in Science!" I've seen kids hate their smarter classmates or view them as rivals because their parents have unwittingly painted them as the obstacles to their own kids' success. It's terribly sad.

So if you're the parent of a child who's afraid of failure and want to break the cycle, what do you do? First, do understand that the fear of failure is largely internalised. You can't simply tell your child that failure is part of life and he needs to get over it. (Just like you can't tell me to get over my fear of lizards and expect it to magically happen. I'll smack you.) You need to create the environment that de-stigmatises failure and reinforce this through everyday lessons. Like I wrote previously in my article on affluent parenting, instilling values is a long-drawn process. It will take time.

Here are some suggestions based on my own experiences and articles I've read:

1. Praise the effort, not the outcome. Eg. if your kid worked hard for an exam, praise that, regardless of the result. That's right, see the second part of that sentence underlined. For my kids, when we see that they have worked hard, we praise them before the results are released. Even if the results turn out to be less than satisfactory, we want to reinforce the lesson that it was the hard work that mattered. After all, one could also do well in an exam without studying, just due to luck. That's not something to reward.

2. Praise your child for the values he demonstrates, like diligence and perseverance, not for his smarts. A kid who's constantly told how smart he is tends to internalise the "smart" label and feel the pressure to live up to it. There's a lot to lose and his self worth can come crashing down if the results don't reflect that label (hence fear of failure). Also, don't overpraise for every little thing. Kids know when the compliments are fake and these don't give them a sense of accomplishment. In fact, they do the opposite.

3. When your kids fail at something, resist the scolding and the nagging. Scolding reinforces the message that failure is BAD and something to be avoided. By all means, help them see where they went wrong but instead of harping on the failure, help them get back up on their feet and encourage them try again. And if they fail again, help them try AGAIN. Seriously. No matter how many times it takes. In this interview with the South China Morning Post, I talked about how I responded when Lesley-Anne failed maths in school. I know not scolding is hard. We're human (and Asian parents!) Even if we don't scold, our kids can still sense our disappointment. So I know it can be a struggle, but do try.

4. Encourage your child to try new things. Like a new sport. For young kids, this could be as simple as trying out a new contraption on the playground. If they resist, don't force or criticise. Just try again next time. If they do make an attempt, remember Point 1 - praise the effort. Then go back to point 3 - if they fail, resist the scolding. Even better, try it with them. Some articles I've read say to use encouraging phrases like "you can do it!" but I would proceed with caution because it depends on the kid. For Lesley-Anne, saying "you can do it!" didn't encourage her one bit, it only added more pressure and increased her fear of failure. So know your child and adjust accordingly.

Over the years, Lesley-Anne has definitely made lots of progress and she's a lot more self-assured now. When she was in sec1, she loved dance but refused to try out for the school dance CCA despite my prodding because she was convinced she wasn't good enough. High chance of failure = don't try. But by the time she entered JC1, she was prepared to give the dance CCA a go, even though she knew her chances were slim (because she wasn't in a dance CCA in secondary school). That gave me great comfort as I saw how she had matured in this area. The fact that she made it to the CCA was a bonus but I would have been proud of her even if she hadn't.

I wouldn't say her fear of failure is entirely resolved because even to this day, issues occasionally crop up. Lesley-Anne tends to downplay her achievements so as not to raise expectations. Whenever I express delight over her performance in some exam, she would dismiss it with something like "oh, I just got lucky" which I have to admit, sometimes annoys me. But I understand it's her way of not putting pressure on herself because she already tends to do that. It's her coping mechanism and her way of distancing achievements from her self-identity, something I've grown to understand.

The fear of failure has implications not just in school but on life itself. Kids who fear failure will almost never take risks. In school, they will choose the "safe" subjects. Their singular goal is to pursue good grades and enter prestigious universities, studying prestigious courses because that is the definition of success. Read this article about how to some kids, not getting into the top university is considered a total failure. Upon graduation, they will go for the prestigious or "safe" occupations.

Which is such a pity. For these people, life isn't a journey of discovery but an obstacle race fraught with hurdles to safely cross. They miss out on life's adventures because they are afraid to try new things (which is instrumental to discovering one's passions or interests). And they will be terrified of making mistakes at work. At the end of the day, how fulfilling is this life? I've met many adults who told me they regretted not being more adventurous in their youth and that they wished they had found their life's passion earlier. How can you find your life's passion if you are too busy staying on the tried and tested path? The fear of failure is incredibly limiting.

Many entrepreneurs didn't get good grades in school. While it is also because they tend to have a very different mindset that doesn't fit in with structured curriculum, I believe part of the reason could be that entrepreneurship is too far too risky for high achievers who fear failure. There's just too much to lose.

Bill Gates famously said, “I failed in some subjects in exam, but my friend passed in all. Now he is an engineer in Microsoft and I am the owner of Microsoft.” Something to think about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece, Monica!
Absolutely love this line
"How can you find your life's passion if you are too busy staying on the tried and tested path?"

Sadly, this is happening to too many Sporean families
We jump on the bandwagon too often without thinking hard if the wagon suits our needs... our mentality seems to be, "Jump on first talk later lah" =p


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