Sometimes I feel like a failure. I think everyone does. And without trying to be self-deprecating, I’ve lived long enough, worked long enough, and tried long enough to have had my fair share of experiences that at least felt a whole lot like failing. I’ve been cut from teams, did poorly on tests, and needed correction in annual reviews. And it’s always painful.
It’s still the moment when no matter how gospel-fluent you think you are that you question your self-worth and wonder if you have the courage to even try again. But even though it’s personally difficult, it pales in comparison at this point in my life to the difficulty of seeing my children fail at something.
That’s what’s truly gut-wrenching – to watch your own child fail at a sport, or a class, or a social encounter, or a whatever. As parents, we can’t stop these moments; nor should we try to. Failure is a terrible experience but a wonderful teacher. So if, then, as parents we are committed to actually allowing our children to fail at some things, then we would do well to ask the question of how to respond appropriately to them when they do.
What do you say when he strikes out? Or when she makes a bad grade? Or when they mess up the joke they’re trying to tell and everyone laughs at them instead of with them? It certainly must be different in every situation, so I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to be particularly formulaic in trying to come up with the right response. There are, however, some things that perhaps we should NOT say:
1. “It’s not the end of the world.”
That’s a true statement. It’s not the end of the world. And, most likely, the pain of that particular failure will be short-lived. But in that moment, when the tears are falling, when the shame feels too deep, when a child simply cannot see the way forward, it’s not a soothing balm when a parent trivializes what has happened to them. There is a right time to offer this kind of perspective, but in the meantime, what a child might need more than that perspective is a parent who will truly feel with them. It’s a mom or a dad who can enter into their sadness with them without trying to tell them how minimal the pain they feel so acutely really is.
Such, I think, is what we find in our heavenly Father, who has recorded all my wanderings and put all my tears in a bottle (Psalms 56:8). When we enter into the sadness of the moment, we can respond with true compassion rather than a response that might seem like triteness.
2. “You’re better than that.”
Most of us have high expectations for our kids. That’s a good thing. I think we do our children a disservice when we don’t challenge them to reach higher. But when a child is sitting in the middle of a failure, it might not be the best time to remind them of those expectations. While it might be true that they can do better – that they can study harder, or watch the ball more closely, or pay more attention – it might also be true that we have overestimated their true ceiling. There comes a moment, then, when all those expectations we have for our children can cease to be an exciting and motivating challenge for them and instead become a crushing weight.
Thankfully, we have a heavenly Father who understands our inadequacies more adequately than even we do ourselves: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust” (Psalms 103:13-14).
3. “You don’t have to do this any more if you don’t want to.”
This statement is the easy road, both for us as parents and our children. When we see our kids trying something, whether a sport, an instrument, or maybe a harder class at school, and failing, there is something in us that wants to escape. And we want to escape not only for our kids; we want to escape for ourselves. So when the failure comes, the easiest thing in the world would be to offer a quick way out. You can quit the team. You can stop practicing the tuba. You can drop the class. But this, too, is a mistake, because the easy way out teaches the easy way out. Of course there are limits to this, but we too quickly allow our kids to develop a mindset of abandonment instead of a mindset of perseverance.
There is great value in perseverance, and the best instructor for perseverance is failure. So while it might be easy to offer to remove the thing that is causing such pain, it does very little in terms of overall heart development, for the Lord is for those who keep their promises, whatever the cost (Psalms 15:4).
Like their parents before them, our kids are going to fail. And for us as their parents, failure is one of the best opportunities to remind our kids of the gospel – for it’s in the gospel that we know God enters into our sadness with us, loves us as we are, and will help us persevere to the end.