Enabling Older Children To Experience Personal Failure: How It Helps Them Win.

“There are two lasting gifts we can hope to give our children, one is roots; the other, wings.”–Hodding Carter Jr.


“What’s the point of being on the best team, if you don’t get to play as much…I’m just going to stay put and improve myself with this team”. When my son made those remarks a few days ago, it immediately gave me the incentive to write this post. He was responding to rumors that several of his teammates plan to leave to another team that has a better chance of advancing to the U16 Nationals soccer tournament. As you can imagine I was impressed by his insightful and mature reasoning, yet two years ago, I would not have envisioned his ability to display such logic. That’s because two years ago, he himself was bouncing from club to club determined to be on the best team. He insisted on this pursuit against my rational persuasion but I realized that it was an opportunity to grant him greater ownership of decisions that ultimately only affected him. So, I dared to allow him to fail, because I recognized that it was the only means for him to learn certain important life lessons. And fail he did, after making one of the top club soccer teams during the outdoor season, he was subsequently cut from the roster when the team accepted fewer players during the indoor season. My boy was heartbroken and it was the type of sadness that us parents never enjoy seeing in our children. I scrutinized my decision to allow him to leave his former team as we now faced the prospects of him missing an entire indoor season. Yet, my son’s gradual growth from such scenarios confirms that the teenage years is an appropriate time for parents to give their children wings to navigate some of their own decision making that may cause personal failure. My classification of failure does not refer to a child’s sense of personal hopelessness about circumstances that are out of their control. It is our job as parents during such occasions to take all necessary steps to restore our children’s confidence and positive outlook. Rather I am defining failure as the repercussions in personal matters that the child is inherently more invested in than the parents. Empowering my son to make choices where there’s a potential of failure enables him to learn important life lessons about perseverance, self reflection and personal accountability.

The sky is never really falling.

After he was released from that team, my son did not know how he was going to live if he couldn’t play soccer and he felt more helpless because he burned bridges with his former team. The spoiler alert is that he did not miss that indoor season and made it onto another  club team but not without learning the intricacies of determination. The most critical component of perseverance is establishing your next desired outcome and I recall asking my son “do you want to play soccer” to which he of course said yes. Once he affirmed his intention to play, I then encouraged him to only focus on brainstorming how to bring this to fruition. In other facets of life, we must also employ this same intentional mindset as we decide to move forwards after unforeseen setbacks. It didn’t take long for him to recall that one of his previous teammates had joined the team half way through the season after asking to attend a couple practices. We did not know that coaches often choose to keep a smaller roster for this very reason and so I began sending out emails to several teams requesting for my son to attend a practice with a prospect of being brought onto the team. The approach worked and he found a new team. As we continued to discuss the lessons from this event, he understood that there’s always a way to move forward and interestingly came to the most profound conclusion, stating “mom I feel sorry for kids who have to feel like for the first time when they are older with something that’s really important”. Yes, HE said those words and it was the biggest reassurance that I am making the right choice in giving him more freedom to experience failure. As they mature into adults we would all want our children not give up after rejection and  it’s beneficial for them to become familiar with how to create possibilities after failure while they are still young.

Reflecting on what went wrong.

Learning from mistakes has proven to be a meaningful occasion to help my son develop insight about his choices; our follow up discussions provides him a safe landing place as we utilize his new awareness to improve his outlook on life. Once he was accepted onto another team, I asked my son how he felt about his decision to hop teams in the first place. He explained that he sincerely thought that being on a better team would make him a better player. However, being one of the more novice players on the team (at that time) he received less playing time and became more tentative during game situations, which may have contributed to his subsequent release. He later admitted that as a relatively new club player, it would have been preferable for him to remain on a team focused on player development than winning. I honestly do not believe he would have gained this insight without the fallout from his attempt to seek greener grass elsewhere. We often do not recognize the tunnel vision of our goal setting motives until we discover the multiple influences that impact our desired outcome. Previously, I could not convince my son that becoming a great soccer player entailed more than being on the best team but he gained that insight independently after his expectations were not met. As we continued to talk about this experience, I explained that its important to consider the various factors of each option in any decision and we are now in the habit of creating a pros and cons list in these situations. Hindsight is 20/20 but insight also offers us a broad viewpoint and I am beginning to see proof of my son’s ability to understand his role and responsibility in creating favourable conditions for his own success.

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Been there, done that.

I asked my son why he doesn’t feel tempted like some of his teammates to leave his current team and he responded “because I’ve already been there and done that”. He followed up with an explanation that at his age division most teams have been cohesive for many years and are loyal to their players. Therefore, even if a team expands their roster during the upcoming outdoor season, they would likely release new players before their veterans going forward. If you have children in sports then you may be familiar with the politics of player loyalty, which is a discussion that’s beyond the scope of this post. What I find commendable about my son’s current outlook is his desire not to potentially repeat the same mistakes as before. He knows what it feels like to regret a choice and feels responsible to avoid the same outcome. Failure helps us to become accountable by making us aware of what to do differently to avoid similar set backs. Of course, there is a balancing act of also recognizing when it’s appropriate to step out of our comfort zone and take new risks that challenge us and enable us to thrive. I believe that one’s motivation for pursuing or abstaining from certain goals typically reveals whether it is the prudent choice. And in his case, his motives for remaining on his current team enhances his self development more than the alternative. From bad relationships, wrong career choices to poor judgement of character, we often learn to do better going forward after we understand where we went wrong and enabling older children to implement this skill will be valuable to them as they get older.

Allowing our children to fail is difficult because it contradicts our innate parenting instinct, which desires the very best for our children. Yet success is a continuous journey of getting up after we fall and it is important for children to develop this ability while they are gaining a greater sense of identity as teenagers. If one insists on keeping all the balls in the air for our older children, they will indeed succeed in those moments but unless we plan to micro manage them forever, we must eventually allow our children to experience disappointment and help them to grow from it.

How are you navigating the domain of allowing your older children to make choices that may disappoint them? Is it easy or challenging? I would love to hear about your experiences.

XO

Ini A.

“Steeping joy, brewed with all that life has to offer”

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