Failure is excruciating. But it’s not as excruciating as watching your child fail. It’s not just that parents are biologically programmed to care about them. We really want them to succeed, partly so they have a great life and partly because, frankly, their success reflects well on us.
But as parents increasingly navigate their kids’ lives so that they avoid failure, those kids lose an important life skill, and one one they will inevitably need: how to find the courage and motivation to get back up. So how do you help kids fail, or rather, how do you help kids deal with failure? Brené Brown, whose new book Rising Strong is about coming back from failure, has spent nearly her whole career studying shame and courage, and in a recent interview with TIME she gave this advice: first, don’t try to fix it.
“If my child, you know, tries out for a team, or you know really wants to get into a certain college or gets shunned at lunch,” she says, “am I willing to sit with her or sit with him and not fix it, but just be with her or him in the struggle? Am I willing to look over and say, ‘God, I know how crappy this feels right now?’ ”
Brown wants parents to let kids feel the sting of failure and learn to overcome it. Even when parents can fix something, she sees more value in teaching kids to feel the emotions failure produces. “Teaching them how to get curious about it, teaching them how to name it, teaching them how to ask for what they need,” she says. “That’s the gift that parents give.”
Brown, who has two kids, also thinks it’s helpful to give kids a reality check, to retell their stories to them. “I’ve got a 16 year old daughter who sometimes can compare her life with Instagram,” she says. “And the stories she makes up: this is what everyone looks like, the fabulous stuff everyone is doing, the time with the entire posse of friends. A lot of times I’ll say, let’s reality check the story you’re making up right now.”
Brown then recounts her daughter’s story a slightly different way. “You’re at home studying chemistry, and you’re making out that everyone is out having a fabulous time. Where are your friends tonight? They’re studying for chemistry. Right. And did anyone ask you to do something tonight? Yes, they did. And why didn’t you go? Because you’re making a choice to study for chemistry.
Getting kids to cast themselves in their own narrative helps kids recall what they consider success and reminds them what their aims are. “We don’t want to be victims in the story. We don’t even want to be heroes in a story,” says Brown. “We want to be the author of the story. And you can’t do that unless you own the story and dig into it.”