“Go out there and fail, son” — said no mom ever to her preschooler.
One of the hardest things for parents to do is to teach their kids that it’s okay to not always be the best. Most of us are hardwired to excel, to achieve, to stand out, so naturally this is also what we teach our children. And while failure is one of life’s realities, no one really sits you down to teach you how to deal with it.
But as experts now point out, it is as important for a child to learn about failure as it is to know success. When children fail, they learn precious life lessons that they won’t ever pick up when all they hear are accolades.
Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, writes, “Today’s overprotective, failure avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.”
Thanks goodness, then, for Sesame Street. It’s been 50 years since the children’s show started airing on TV, yet it remains to be a most effective tool for teaching young kids their ABCs and numbers, as well as important life lessons like manners, the concept of inclusion, and, yes, even failure. For its 50th season, the show will harp on the theme of “Oops and Aha!” to teach kids (and their parents) that it's okay to make mistakes.
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In one of its recent episodes, the character Maggie Cadabby accidentally spills honeysuckle petunia juice on the table and starts to panic. Her mother responds not by rescuing her from the blunder, but by helping her calm down first (“Honey, spills and chills, they happen to everybody. Now, how do we solve this problem, hmm?”), and then brainstorming with her for solutions.
“Name the problem, look for solutions and turn that ‘Oops!’ into an ‘Aha!’ moment.”
The concept of perfectionism and the fear of failing — possibly a result of parents’ unrealistic expectations of their children — has lasting adverse effects on a person’s psyche. For instance, a study found that those who fear repeating a failure that occurred in childhood may want to achieve a goal for the temporary ego boost rather than for self-improvement. On the other hand, children who were given room to make mistakes grew up to be more resilient and motivated.
The key, it turns out, is in how the parents view failure because it sets the standard for their children. When parents believe failure is a “bad thing,” they are, in effect, telling their child that there is nothing that can be done to improve after failing, thus kids grow up putting very little effort to change the status quo.
On the other hand, if parents believe that failure is a learning experience, or a tool, kids grow up knowing that when they fail, that is not the end of it. They will continually look for ways to better themselves.
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The gift of Sesame Street is in how they are able to translate broad ideas such as this into smaller, digestible lessons even preschoolers can comprehend.
Melissa Kearney, a professor of economics at University of Maryland, did a study with her co-author Phillip Levine on Sesame Street’s broadcast and found a link between the show’s reach and children’s preparedness for elementary school. “You realize how impressionable kids are.”
She adds, “The way I think about the lessons of our study for today, it’s the promise that television or media or radio content that’s well-designed can have a really positive impact.”
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