The Importance of Failure: A Culture of False Success
Posted by Dean Holden at April 17th, 2015
by Laura M Miele-Pascoe Ph.D., 12 March 2015
Source: Steven Pisano/Flickr
Contrary to what many would think, having an “everyone’s a winner” mentality in my daughter’s youth softball league did not come as good news to me. In order to level the playing field, rules were altered to prevent children from striking out, getting tagged out, etc. When I heard about these changes, I insisted that my daughter not be held to such standards because I believed it would deprive her of valuable lessons.
On one particular occasion, my daughter was running from second to third base and was thrown out. Typically, the girls are allowed to stay on the base. I refused and insisted that my daughter follow more competitive rules. I explained to her why she was out. I viewed this as confronting a small but important failure. I understand that this might sound harsh to some parents, but I grasped the psychological significance that failure can play in sports and wanted my daughter to perceive this lesson as well. The next time she had to run the bases, she ran like her hair was on fire. She did not want to get thrown out again. Children need to be taught what the rules are and why they are thrown out.
I see this event as a valuable example of the importance of the learning process that every child should experience. A child’s mind is complex, and it is best to approach it from all angles, similar to how STEM vs. STEAM education is forcing educators to examine all cognitive aspects. I was forced to ask the tough question: Are we actually providing a disservice to children by not letting them experience failure or disappointment in sports? Is the “everyone’s a winner” attitude detrimental in the long run?
It is becoming commonplace to give every child a trophy for just showing up or to change the rules of the game to avoid any sort of failure, but this mindset goes against the fundamentals on which sports were built. Beyond the scope of sports, however, these changes are disadvantageous to children in the long term. It deprives children of valuable learning lessons and coping skills that will extend into other facets of their lives. If they are not taught how to work harder in order to accomplish their goals, and instead expect that success will be handed to them, then what is the point of hard work and dedication? Children will not be able to apply those same valuable principles to other aspects of their lives, such as achieving good grades, securing a scholarship, or working toward a better job.
Children are being increasingly coddled in a culture of false confidence and reinforcement. If they do not learn how to deal with disappointment and failure early on, children will be exponentially more distraught when they inevitably face them later in life. In fact, Ashley Merryman, the co-author of books such as “Losing is Good For You,” referenced a Stanford psychology study that found “kids respond positively to praise; they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart and so on. But, after such praise of their innate abilities, they collapse at the first experience of difficulty. Demoralized by their failure, they say they’d rather cheat than risk failing again.”
This evidence supports the claim that we are doing a true injustice to children psychologically by not allowing them to experience failure. It is in a child’s best interest to learn how to adjust and alter their approach if what they’re doing is not working, and we’re not providing them with the proper tools for success. Failure is a necessary part of learning and growth, and sports are an ideal place to implement these important lessons.
When I was younger, I learned the value of failure as a teaching tool. I remember wanting to join the basketball team so badly, but I knew that my skills weren’t up to par, so I practiced shooting in the freezing cold and hot summers all alone, because I knew that is what it would take to develop my skill set. I did not take the easy route or settle for my shortcomings because I knew that hard work was the only way to reach my goals.
The same Stanford psychology study referenced earlier also found that children who receive praise for effort rather than for achievement are more likely to see skills as something that can be improved, rather than an innate trait. This idea cements the notion that encouraging effort is more beneficial in positively shaping a child’s character than guaranteeing success. Otherwise, they will never know what it takes to get better, because we did not allow them to fail and explain why they failed.
Although I believe that advocates for the “everyone’s a winner” approach have good intentions, I do not agree with the way that they are trying to accomplish it. We need to empower children and instill confidence while allowing them to experience a valuable lesson in life: failure. The world is full of competition. By diluting the competitive nature of sports, we risk stifling a child’s future and development in more ways than one.