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How I’m Teaching My Son Not to Fear Failure

Oct. 10, 2018 Fatherly

It’s mid-morning on a Saturday, and my 4-year-old son Fox is ripping through his day. Breakfast has been cleared, the LEGOs are out, and music is playing on the Google Home. Fox, who’s passionate about music and loves listening to everything from “big loud crazy songs” (aka Metallica) to “songs without any words” (Star Wars theme), suddenly thinks of a specific song he wants to hear. He asks me to tell Google, but I push back and encourage him to do so. He knows to start with, “Hey Google,” but he looks at me with trepidation and anxiety. I’ve seen his expression before ⏤ he’s scared. He’s scared to tell a device what song to play for fear of getting it wrong. He eventually becomes so emotionally distraught and near tears that he gives up. He’d rather not hear the song. Forget it. Nevermind.

Seeing his frightened face immediately brings me back to my own childhood. His look of fear was the same one I wore for most of my youth. I was in perpetual fear of failure. I was scared to look not smart, incompetent, and unqualified, especially in front of others. For an introvert like myself, the idea of not only getting attention but getting attention for doing something wrong was akin to death. Who knew this feeling was innate or even hereditary? But here we are, a dad and his son, both afraid to do something wrong.

A few months ago, we were at our neighborhood Mexican restaurant. My wife asked Fox, who’s been interested in learning Spanish, to say “por favor” when he asks for another tortilla chip. He’s said the phrase multiple times. He knows how to say it. Yet he breaks down in tears. I pulled him outside and we sit on the curb in the parking lot. Once he calmed down, I told him to repeat after me, “por,” “por,” “favor,” “favor.” “See, you just said it?” He smiled at me, half embarrassed, half proud.

I saw this moment as a crack in the door to help Fox avoid the same anxieties I suffered from as a child. I wanted him to know that I’ll be there for his attempts and his failures, because it’s less scary when you’re with someone. I explained that I couldn’t teach, fix, or prevent every failure in his life ⏤ his failures need to be his own ⏤ but I wanted him to share them with me so we could embrace them together. My own road to accepting failure was wrought with moments alone, in secret, fearing the reactions of others. I had a sense of determination to always improve myself, but it meant at times, counting down the minutes until I had time to practice alone. Research alone. Attempt perfection alone. I didn’t want that for my kids.

I explained to Fox that as I grew up, I got better about confronting the fear of failure, but that it’s never gone away. There’s always that little bit deep down ⏤ a fear that I might do something terrible ⏤ that still worries me. But with age and practice, whatever that terrible truly is, it isn’t that bad. I told him about how I now try to focus on how I react to the fear. Sure, I still get upset, don’t get me wrong, but now I work to get over it quickly, to talk about what I did wrong, and to express how I am going to do better next time. The hope is that this all translates, that Fox understands that failure isn’t scary. That nothing ends when you get something wrong. Life still goes on.

As my kids grow up and have become more invested in my actions, I’ve also learned I need to fail in front of them. I need to let them know when I screw up. And not just visual proof ⏤ I need to say it out loud. Dad made a mistake or Dad messed up dinner or Dad may have killed your fish. Maybe. I let them know that I screwed up but that next time will be different. And that’s the big thing: They need to know that there’s always the next time.

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