Failure Is Good

rani's picture

My Two Friends

In the past two years, I have two friends who fell into the abyss of mental disorder (depression, schizophrenia) and their stories concluded quite tragically (please don’t ask me to elaborate on the “how it has concluded” aspect).

The thing is that both stories have similar background: Their lives were so perfect. At least it seemed so on the outside. They’re both very good looking, very extroverted. They’re both over-achievers ever since they were little kids, top ranks in schools, getting scholarships, all the way up to adulthood, successful in their careers.

They appeared to be free of problems. Or at least, in my eyes, they do not seem to have enough reason to be unhappy. But then, looking back into the conversations I’ve had with both of them, now I realize, that very subtly, amongst the words that had glorified their great achievements, there is this fear of failure, and there is this regret over a particular situation which they couldn’t overcome and wanted to run away from.

I couldn’t help but wanting to look back on how their parents raised them. No, I really do not want to blame their mental disorder problem onto the parents. But I assume that their mental disorder is due to their inability to cope with a particular situation. I'm just curious on how my two friends perceive such a situation, and I couldn’t help to think that a large part of it is their upbringing.

The parents of one of these two friends have a tendency to boast their child’s (my friend) achievements in front of many other people. This explains that this friend has a great showmanship. But I assume that my friend has perceived the parents’ treatment as, “The most important thing in life is to achieve great things” and on the flipside, “The most embarrassing thing in life is to fail”. And true enough, once my friend hit a wall that he/she couldn’t run away from, he/she thinks it is failure, and couldn’t cope with it.

I do not know about my other friend’s parents. But seeing how he/she always longed for his/her past achievements, and that he/she always wanted to run away from his/her current life (which is different from the more successful past), I guess he/she have received the same message from his/her upbringing that it is not OK to fail.

(You see, I’m trying to obscure the identity of my two friends by making the gender obscure)

Their tragic stories had me thinking. It seems that emphasizing on successful achievements in raising children could be dangerous. On top of that, it seems that it’s more important to teach kids that , “It’s OK to fail, try again!” and that, “It’s the effort that counts, the achievement is just a bonus”, emphasizing on the effort, not the result. Instead of raising a successful child, it’s more important to raise a child that can cope with failure.

As A Parent

The question is that, “have I, as a parent, done the right thing?

Being a parent is more difficult than only reading the parenting handbook / theories, because the child rearing process is not limited to tutoring the child. Those theories are useless unless it is being internalized.

One thing about being a parent is to be an example for the child. It is amazing to see how fast my children imitate my daily action and habits, but that means, my bad action and habits are prone to be imitated as well.

Another thing about being a parent is how a message is implied further than what is actually said. This means a sentence that was not meant to impose certain value becomes loaded when it is posed in a certain way. Or a sentence becomes loaded when it is not in sync with the actual action of the parents.

For example (from Half Full blog), when your kid had just came back from soccer practice, you intend to ask how the game was. So you ask, “How was the game, did you win?”. This implies that it is more important for the child to win the game.

Instead, it could be better to ask, “How was the game, did you learn something new? Did you have fun?”, emphasizes that it is more important to learn something and have fun instead of winning. This allows the child himself to set and measure his own successes, instead of imposed from the outside.

Coping With Failure

Now how does this have to do with allowing the child to learn to cope with failure? In a nutshell, we as parents need to internalize that effort and allowing failure is more important than achievement and success, through our words and also our actions.

But how to deal with failure? Perhaps many parents are afraid that this means celebrating or praising failures. Well, actually, no. When we say, “It’s OK to fail”, it means that we do not put too much negativity on the failure (just as we shouldn’t put too much praise on achievements too). We shouldn’t demonize and mock failure as embarrassment. Deal with failure rationally; show the child cause and effect. Show the child the logical consequences. For example, instead of mocking, “You stupid child, why do you spill your food?”, we can sufficiently say “When you spill the food, you should clean it up”.

Further, the cause and effect should be framed rationally and logically, not emotionally. For example, we shouldn't say “I’m not pleased that you didn’t pass the test” because this could be perceived by the child that the parent’s happiness is the ultimate goal. Instead, perhaps the parent could say, “When you don’t pass the test, you could spend the vacation period doing remedial test. Or we could still go on vacation, but you could stay one more year in the same class. Which one do you want to do?”. There’s no need to show any negativity. Again, this allows the child himself to set and measure his own successes, instead of imposed from the outside. We as parents should only show him the various ways and options that the child could pursue.

Gosh, really, I’m not yet a good parent. I’m very new in this, and still learning. Even for me it is difficult to internalize the theories that I wrote up there. Why do I write all this in the blog? Not because I know better about parenting, but because I hope to remember the lesson for the future, and perhaps to share with you guys too.

From Randy Pausch: Brick walls are there for a reason: they let us prove how badly we want things. Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

From Christine Carter: The thing we need to protect our kids from is not failure but a life void of failure.


Winning or not

My feeling is that it's not a problem to ask "Did you win?" That might be part of sharing the excitement. The important thing is how you react when the answer is "No". If the child knows that you'll see it in the spirit of a fun competitiveness, and is not afraid to share their failures, I think that's healthy.

gosh, it is so very true

gosh, it is so very true what you write. it is how we react to failure that matters, and I really hope I can be a good model in this respect, and 'internalise' what I believe in.. it is hard not to want things for your child, and lots of being a parent seems to be stepping back from what *I* want to allow him to really get an 'unloaded' choice about what he wants (well, on some things :p)
I know we've discussed this before, but I was also struck this in your entry: "(just as we shouldn’t put too much praise on achievements too)" -- that really is the 'kinder, gentler' way of saying failure is no good - it seems nicer to the child, and is meant well, but I think it puts the same kind of pressure on the child, and doesn't teach them to persist in the face of difficulty. I was really shocked when I went back to spend time with my family in the UK, and everyone was praising Andi for ... everything! made me think I would not want him exposed to that every day.
Anyway, I'm sure Noe and Kei are going to grow up with fantastic attitudes to life :)


There has to be balance between the two traits, and the balancing act may be the hardest part to juggle for parents. On one extreme can be a persistent, positive person who doesn't know how take failure. But on the other extreme can be one who takes failure too lightly, or gives up too easily.


The reality is that some parents live their lives through their kids. By this I mean that they want and push their kids to achieve all the things that they did not achieve themselves. This is incredible pressure for a child and one day this pressure will catch up with them.

This might be as simple as finally acknowledging that they cannot do everything and be everything, then taking a step back and taking stock of what has been achieved to date and a little bit of re-evaluation of one's goals. There are plenty of stories of high-powered individuals who have reached a certain point in their lives and then just stepped away to do something different, something they have always wanted to.

For example, a high-powered lawyer earning 1 million a year stepping off and becoming a teacher at a disadvantaged school and earning a salary of 50K a year.

The other way this ends is tragically.

Nice post and a valuable read.

Thank you for your writing

Thank you for your writing. Yes, you are so true. I do not know how many times I have read your writing here, i think more than 5. I read every line carefully. This is inspired me a lot. I am a mother of 15 months old boy, and It is important to know what's best to teach him in this life, thank you Utaku.and miss you too.


Nice read.

I'm glad my folks weren't total Nazis when it came to failing exams. But their clear disappointment became a better motivation for me to ace. hahaz. Guess parents should really know that their actions impact the kids a lot more than they think.


This article is so deep..


Sorry about your friends... :-( but it does indeed raise an interesting issue... PARENTING. I think, when I was growing up, it was really important to have the support of my parents in everything I did. They always told me that failing was not a bad thing and that I could always try again. When I then went on to succeed, it was not received as thought I had done something wonderful, simply that I had done my best and that they were proud! :-)

I do think parents moud a child´s syche and mental problems can be caused by the things parents do or do not do.


not as simple as it seems.

This is a very complex subject, Ran, and I've encountered some fascinating people and stories around this subject. I can take an example of, say, two manic-depressives on lithium. Both grew up with loving, supportive and gentle parents, and both start to fall into manic-depression only later in their life. One of them accepts his/her condition and takes their lithium without questioning. S/he can talk about him/herself being manic-depressive — although not in public — without feeling ashamed of it. The other one has a tendency to stop lithium. S/he feels that, because of the manic-depression, people will always regard him/her as a failure for the rest of his/her life, and so tries to hide it.

Now let's look at two other people who grew up with abusive parents. One still has weird phobias s/he cannot get rid of, but s/he manages to live on — outliving his childhood, outgrowing his own abusive parents — and practically function as an independent adult. The other one lingers in his/her childhood even when s/he's now physically an adult, takes it back to his/her abusive parents by abusing them physically in return and abusing him/herself physically to emotionally abuse his/her parents. S/he focuses on abuse and never moves on, fixating in the past and fails to function as an adult. And s/he simply doesn't care.

Sometimes mental disorders, or — from your point of view — an inability to cope with a certain situation, could be the mere effects of chemistry in your brain — which ironically brings us back to the parents' genes. But at least as much as parents can be held responsible for their children's upbringing, socially and/or genetically, a child is actually reared by a wider and more intricate social and natural network, however invisible. A child is — although it's fair to say that this skill might be only acquired when growing up under supervision of an older or more experienced person — also responsible for itself.

So I agree that parenting is an important factor, but growing up is not less important, and I guess as a grown up, being thankful of, or at least accepting whatever you've got is most important. I've met with functional adults who grew up with parents who didn't think too much about parenting. Some parents are thinking about doing their best in parenting; they can only try to provide their children with ways to understand how to grow up (and eventually grow old), but that's all they can do. The rest is — for both parents and children alike in the position of being responsible subjects, unfortunately — luck, which I think might translate back to that intricate social and natural (including genetic) network.

All said, I'm not a parent, and I can only imagine your concerns when you started writing this entry. So I'm only speaking out of my observation and experience being one of the many integral part of that social and natural network. Perhaps that's easier than being a parent :-).

Too easy to blame parents

Parenting is very important and I agree that children are definitely affected by how they are raised. But when you mention schizophrenia, you are heading into a completely different territory. My siblings and I were all raised wonderfully by our parents. We are all very successful in school and jobs, as well as sociable and happy. However, my brother is now schizophrenic, and the disease did not begin to show itself until early adulthood, which is the norm for male schizophrenics. I just can't really see your connection between parenting and having a brain that is dysfunctional - beyond anyone's control - and requires medication.

I couldn't agree more

I like this article very much , and I couldn't agree more. My cousin lives in a family with both extremes. His father's side are critical success oriented and unfortunately unforgivably strict people and his mother's side ( my side ) are the " Just play for the fun of it and don't worry about winning ). The poor guy gets so obsessed with winning or getting the highest grade that he ends up being a nervous wreck.

Aspiring to achieve is a good thing agree , but one shouldn't consider it the be all and end all of all things.

This happened to a friend of mine.

He was the perfect student, the perfect graduate student and went on to become a professor. But he was contained by his parents. It wasn't just helicopter parenting, they monitored and criticized every aspect of his life. His friends were horrified, but he didn't notice. It was the way he had been brought up.

Successful to all outward appearances, he became unable to leave a certain geographical area around his house during the first vacation after he got tenure. The area was small, maybe a square mile. He told no one, but became more and more worried as the date approached to return to campus. Well, I won't go on. As you say, the results were tragic.

His parents wanted the best for him, but they set him up. It is so hard as a parent to know when to allow a child to take risks, but you are right, they do have to learn to take them.

Coping with Failure.

It is always difficult for parents who want the best for their children to accept that their children may fail at some point in their lives, and your story highlights the importance and need to educate parents and children about how to cope with failure rather than concentrating on success.

Very interesting article. I

Very interesting article. I have a blog about kids in my town. I wanted to promote the kids who do good things because they so often get unnoticed. I promote events for kids and I hope parents will find info they can use. I will probably in the next few days link to your post as you have stated a very valid and important point.
Thank you

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