Kids are their own worst critics. Perfectionism can reduce even very young children to hysterics over toppled towers, drawing disasters and other creative catastrophes. It breaks our parenting hearts to watch and we rush in with hugs and kind words to soften the blow. I confess that when my kids were young, I sometimes resorted to less dignified tactics to calm them. “Look! . . . It’s Barney! . . . On a pony! . . . And he has ice cream!”
I am not proud of this. Even if the image of a pony-riding, ice cream-toting purple dinosaur distracted my kids and averted the immediate crisis, it did nothing to help them learn to fail. And yet, the ability to do so is one of the biggest factors for success in life. It is also a key to success in science and engineering. Nobody understands the beauty and power of embracing failure as well as scientists and engineers. We can learn a lot from people who understand that failure is not the opposite of success but rather a step on the road to success. It’s one of the reasons I am excited to attend and present at the USA Science & Engineering Festival on April 26 and 27 when over 350,000 adults and kids gather in the nation’s capitol to celebrate science and engineering.
We have lots of problems to solve on this planet and need all the scientists and engineers we can muster. Even if our kids decide not to follow these paths, the basic recipe for success in science and engineering is the same as it is for all endeavors: Curiosity + Failure + Determination = Success.
How can you help your kids embrace failure?
1. Celebrate questions.
Questions are more important than answers. Create a space in your house that is dedicated to questions. This space can be as fancy as a chalkboard wall or as simple as a pad of paper kept on the kitchen table. Collect as many questions as you can. Talk about them over dinner. Explore them during those interstitial moments that crop up during the day: Walking to the park. Driving to pre-school. Waiting for dance class to begin. Explore the secondary questions that spring up. Get a thinking cap and take turns wearing it and writing down the questions that pop into your heads. Don't worry about finding answers. Answers come later. Just celebrate the questions.
2. Guide your child through the process of discovery.
Pick a question to answer or a problem to solve and make a plan. How can we keep squirrels off the bird feeder? Can we create an alarm to let us know when the siblings are home from school? Draw up pictures. Brainstorm. Treat every idea as a possible solution, no matter how improbable or even silly it might seem.
3. Turn brainstorming into an adventure.
Go on a brainstorming quest to the thrift shop, the hardware store, the craft store, or the park. Imagine how you can use the things you find to help with your project. Include ice cream. Adventures are always better with ice cream.
4. Set expectations for failure.
Use phrases like "The first thing we are going to try is . . ." Set the expectation that there will be a second thing to try and a third and a fourth . . .
It helps to make predictions before you test your invention. Be general: Do you think this will work? Why? Why not? Be specific: How do you think the spring at the top will react to the weight of the bird seed? Will the bells be loud enough to let us know when your brother gets home? Discuss what might break or function differently than hoped: “I think the string will break. That ribbon might get twisted and keep the bell from swinging back and forth freely.” Helping your child anticipate problems will ease their frustration when problems inevitably occur.
5. Have fun.
Diffuse drama through humor and set the tone with seriously silly sound effects: “Countdown to Fabulous First Flop in 10, 9, 8 . . . KABOOM!” Sound effects are like ice cream. They make everything better.
6. Celebrate what happens next. ESPECIALLY if it is a failure.
You set the tone. Just like a toddler who looks around after a fall to see if she should cry or brush it off, your child will follow your lead. If you show disappointment at a flop, they will too. If you treat it as a success, so will they. Cheer for the failures: “Yahoo! That was wonderfully awful! Let's do it again!” Cheer for the successes: “Yahoo! That was pretty good! How can we improve it?”
7. Rinse and repeat.
Ask questions - what worked. What didn't? Why? Why not? What should we change for Fabulous Flop #2? Fabulous Flop #3? Your process of discovery will reveal new questions. Add them to your question wall.
Learning to fail is not easy. It takes practice, but it is worthwhile. No matter if our kids grow up to solve cold fusion, write fiction, navigate the business world, or create a new path we haven’t yet imagined, they will be better at it if we teach them to fail. Fabulously. Fantastically. Ferociously.
Understanding and embracing failure will help all our kids follow their talents. No purple dinosaurs on ponies required. Ice cream always welcome.
Andrea Beaty is the New York Times bestselling author of Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect along with children’s novels, Dorko the Magnificent and Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies. She visits dozens of schools each year to share her enthusiasm for writing and STEM with students. Andrea also presents at science and engineering events such as the USA Science and Engineering Festival and the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan as an advocate for girls in STEM. Andrea lives near Chicago. For more information visit her website.