My seven-year-old son is pretty much a child prodigy. The kid can scale walls and climb trees so high, and so fast, that he gives Superman a legitimate run for his money. I remember a time when he was five and we were at the city pool. “Um. ma’am? Is that your son?” giggled a high school lifeguard as she pointed to my son, who had figured out how to shimmy his way up the 12-15 feet umbrella pole and HANG from the umbrella. See?! Prodigy!
A few months ago, my little man competed in a local “Obstacle Warrior Kids” competition (think American Ninja Warrior for littles). It’s pretty cool to get to watch him completely in his element. He is fiercely competitive and incredibly skilled, and he finds joy in every moment of running, jumping, swinging, and climbing! He was seven at the time, competing in an age group of six to nine year olds, and qualified for the Top 10 Finals in second place!
Without boring you with all the details, he did not do his best in the final round. It was late in the evening, his nerves got the best of him, and he finished sixth overall. He was distraught. Now before you stop and say, “Sixth out of 40 is amazing! You should be proud,” let me tell you that we were all so proud of his efforts. However, his competitive nature had his eyes set on the Top Three. The Top Three get medals, and when you are seven, medals are everything. The tears began to flow immediately after he finished his race. He knew he did not do well and wanted to immediately leave and skip watching the awards ceremony.
Y’all, seeing your kiddo cry big old crocodile tears because he lost, stinks. I instantly went into Mama Bear mode, comforting him and trying to put into perspective what he had accomplished. He was the youngest competitor to make the top 10, and he beat almost half of them!
“Bud, technically you got first place in your age group! You actually DID win!!” I said as I tried to stop the tears.
My little ninja stopped, looked up at me through his tears, and firmly said, “Mom, I did NOT win. I got sixth place.”
I sat there stunned. Both amazed at my son’s insight, and appalled at the words that had come out of my mouth. The way I was trying to support him was trying to turn my son, who clearly lost, into a fake winner for the sake of his feelings. My words were discrediting the hard work and incredible efforts of the other five children who beat him by twisting the facts. I was subconsciously telling him that I was only proud of him if he was, indeed, a winner. I was trying to keep my kid from being a loser.
The Fear of Failure
Losing stinks. I am not sure I know anyone who genuinely LIKES to lose. However, it’s a part of life! Well, that is, until the era of “everyone gets a trophy” became the status quo. This mentality of “everyone is a winner” isn’t just silly, but it is also detrimental to their emotional and psychological development, and plays a huge part in the entitlement epidemic that seems to be sweeping our nation.
My mom is a college professor at a local university and recently shared with me a startling trend amongst undergraduate students nationwide. Depression and anxiety is rapidly on the rise amongst this population of young adults, and for much different reasons than they used to see. Rather than being depressed about missing home or missing their parents, experts are hypothesizing that these anxieties are now centered around a fear of failure. These young men and young women grew up believing that, regardless of your ability or your performance, everyone is a winner and everyone deserves a trophy. So, when they get to college and realize that not everyone gets that coveted A+ on their midterm, they panic and have no way to cope with the pressure. They never learned how to lose.
As parents, we have such a profound impact on our kids’ outlook on life. I recently watched a video of Sara Blakely, the founder/CEO of Spanx, talk about how her father essentially helped to redefine her definition of failure by praising her biggest failures, rather than her biggest accomplishments. Sara’s dad helped her to see that the gift was not in the success, and the gift was not in winning. The true value in all she did was in the experience, and what she was able to learn from those experiences –win or lose.
What Can We Do?
The more I have pondered this, I have discovered a few simple things we can do as parents to save our children from becoming adults who don’t know how to embrace failure:
- Encourage your child to take risks. Remind him that the desired outcome is not perfection, but in learning and trying new things, no matter how good or bad.
- Provide your child opportunities to lose. Board games are a perfect time to do this! Don’t let your child win simply to make her happy. Sometimes you will win; sometimes she will win.
- Teach your child how to be a gracious loser. Did he lose his soccer game? Encourage him to tell at least two or three players from the other team “Good game!” Did he not make the school play but his best friend did? Encourage your child to help that friend memorize his lines.
- Don’t try to solve all of your kid’s problems. If we are constantly swooping in, rescuing our children from failure, they will never learn the problem-solving skills necessary to cope with the “oopsies” of life.
- Praise the effort, not the outcome. Help your children redefine their view on success. Focus on the effort, the fun, and the experience, and let the “win” be the cherry on the top.
Since that Ninja Competition, my little man frequently talks about what he needs to do to be able to get on that medal stand. He was over his loss by sunrise and began strategizing and practicing for his next competition. I know without a shadow of a doubt that some day he will find himself standing on the winner’s podium, smiling ear to ear, knowing he truly earned the medal hanging around his neck. Until that day arrives, I am going to celebrate the dozens of losses that will eventually bring him to that moment of victory.