Is failure good for girls? Jessica Lahey, author of the new bestseller, The Gift of Failure, says it is in this conversation we had recently. Especially when parents choose to not protect girls from failing when they could.
But just a minute. It seems like girls already face enough challenges in life that parents can’t do anything to prevent. So what’s the harm in us making their life a little less difficult by dropping off forgotten completed homework or lunch on our way to work?
I certainly did these kinds of little things to support my daughters. I knew they’d be embarrassed when they didn’t have the homework to turn in on time. And I didn’t want them to feel embarrassed. I’d been there myself too many times. I knew the sensation of red creeping up my cheeks when others noticed I’d made a mistake.
For me, this extended far outside school to nearly everything I did. Once, when staying with relatives, I was slicing cucumbers for a salad and asked my aunt if it was okay that the slices were different widths! I was a perfectionist at a young age and felt failure was always waiting around the corner.
Naturally, I wanted to spare my daughters the dread of mistakes and embarrassment that I hated. When they were little, I thought that not failing would help them become self-confident and capable. What I didn’t see was that I was subtly teaching them to avoid mistakes like the plague, as though failure could break them. And that undermined their self-confidence at the same time we were telling them how wonderful they were. They quite reasonably picked up our non-verbal message that they were incapable of bouncing back from failure.
How Does Failure Affect Girls?
As Rachel Simmons said on Time.com, “When girls make mistakes, they’re more likely to interpret the setback as a sign they lack ability — a factor much harder for girls to change. Boys, on the other hand, tend to attribute failure to more controllable circumstances.”
Girls also can develop a drive for perfectionism, as I did. On the plus side, it gave me the feeling I could control at least some of my life and experience. Girls who see our still-unequal world look for ways they can feel powerful. But perfectionism is a hollow power that shatters easily with the smallest mistake or judgment from someone else.
Growing up, I viewed failure as the worst possible thing. I felt a lot of pressure around not failing, and anxiety about being judged by others in any way. With schoolwork, trying to avoid failure led me to procrastinate. By not putting my all into an assignment, I pre-cushioned the potential blow of not getting an A. I didn’t try out for even a single sports team because I figured I wouldn’t make it.
3 Things to Do to Help our Girls Fail
First and foremost, we need to admit our own reasons for wanting our girls to not fail. For me, it was my need to avoid the pain and vulnerability I felt when they were frustrated or uncertain. When they felt like that, I thought I was failing them as a mother. I didn’t have enough confidence in their toughness of mind and emotional strength to hang in there through their frustration without intervening to relieve it. I wish I had.
Fortunately for them, as my daughters got older I had to face the fact that I couldn’t shield them from failure. Life lived fully has plenty of failure in it, no matter our age. My life is certainly an example of this!
And failure in childhood is a powerful teacher, especially when parents can be the emotional safety net that allows girls to feel the frustration, embarrassment, hurt or whatever comes, and then listen while their daughter figures out what to do next. Failure handled this way builds true self-confidence. It’s the definition of resilience which is one of the very best gifts we can hope to give our children.
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg says, “Even a stable child equipped with good coping strategies may get overwhelmed, and that’s neither a sign of a child’s weakness nor a sign of poor parenting. To help your daughter to open up, simply reinforce you are there to be supportive, without judgment.”
Opportunities for failure lie everywhere in school, sports, arts, work, and relationships. It’s something we never get too wise to experience. But we and our girls don’t need to dread that failure is right around every corner. Above all, we need to know, and to show our girls, that failure isn’t just a negative. It may not be fun. It is okay.
P.S. A HUGE Thank You To Our Contributing Artists!
Mouni Feddag donated her beautiful artwork to the Fiction section of our November-December 2015 issue! She saw our online community and magazine, and wanted to support our mission. Check out her website and her Facebook. ALSO thank you to Karianne Munstedt, the professional photographer who did the cover photo with her NMG member daughter. Take a look at her website here. Professionals who donate their photography and artistic skills help make our magazine a wonderful visual experience for our members.