Four Ways to Help Teens Fail Well
When my children face a new challenge, one of my favorite mom-isms is to remind them that it took Edison thousands of tries before he successfully developed the lightbulb. I want them to know that they will likely not be successful on the first attempt at something. That it takes falling down to learn to ride a bike. That it takes years of practice to master an instrument. That no author gets it right the first time; all their work is edited. That it takes trial and error to find success.
And in truth, failure is part and parcel of life.
In our culture, the often-unspoken rule is that failure is not an option. Our children learn this by watching all the ways we as parents prevent and protect them from failing. They first saw it when we showed up in elementary school every time they forgot their lunch or an assignment or their mittens. They saw it when we confronted the soccer coach for not putting them in the game (even when our child made no effort to help their team win). They saw it when we scheduled a meeting with the high school Literature teacher when they received a B. They see it now as we remind them over and over all they need to do to get into a good college—and go to great lengths to ensure they do so.
Why might we want to protect our children from failure? It’s certainly hard to watch them struggle. It’s hard to see them hurting. But perhaps it’s moreso because their successes are so tightly wound up in our success. When our kids fail at something, it means we failed too. And by protecting them, we hope to ensure our own success in parenting.
Certainly, performing up to one’s abilities is important. As believers, we want our children to do their best. The book of Proverbs often warns of the consequence for laziness and sloth. But in our efforts to encourage our children to do their best, sometimes we protect them from important lessons learned when they fall short of that best.
Because the reality is we live in a fallen world. As a result of our first parent’s fall into sin, nothing works as it should. Our minds and bodies often fail us. In our labors, we constantly push against the thorns and thistles of the ground. We are also all born with a sin nature and are prone to sin in thought, word, and deed.
As a result, failure isn’t just an option, it’s an inevitability. Our children will at some point fail at something. Whether they receive a poor grade on a test, fail to get onto the sport’s team, or miss out on being invited to the party, our children will know failure firsthand. The question is, will they be prepared to face it?
Parents, we have the important responsibility of helping our teens prepare for and navigate the failures of life. Doing so now, while they are under our roof and in our care, will equip them for when they face bigger failures in life as adults, those failures we all know so well—broken dreams, lost jobs, torn relationship, and more.
Four Ways to Prepare Your Teen to Fail Well
- Teach Them to Lament Their Failures: When things don’t go the way we expect, it is right to lament those failures. Lament is the proper response to the brokenness of life in a fallen world. Our children need to learn to bring their disappointments, heartaches, and sorrows to God. They need to tell him how it feels when they fail a class or don’t get into the college they long to get into. We help them do so by sharing with them the words of the psalmist, one who models the way of lament for us. Our teens need to see God as their rock and refuge, a safe shelter in the day of trouble.
- Teach Them Their Identity is Not Rooted in their Performance: Too often our teens find their meaning and purpose in what they can do, in what they can achieve. They grow to find their identity in being an A student, the star football player, or the experienced pianist. But what happens when they get that first B? Or when they are injured and can’t play on the team? Our teens need to learn that who they are is found in their relationship with God. He created them as image bearers. Their purpose is found in living life for his glory, in living out the truths of who they are because Christ died to redeem them from sin and make them his children forever.
- Teach Them to Learn from Their Failures: The lessons learned in failure far outweigh the losses. We need to teach our children to learn from their failures and to apply those lessons to the next task. When they don’t make the team, they learn what areas they need to target so they can grow and strengthen in their sport. When they didn’t get the grade, they look for areas of weakness and increase their study of those areas for the next time. When they face an obstacle or a challenge, they do the work to grow and mature from it. We can encourage this by pointing to missionaries whose stories describe constant obstacles, challenges, and failures and their persistence in spite of those barriers.
- Teach Them of Jesus’ Success on Their Behalf: While failures are part of life in a fallen world, we have a Rescuer who was perfect on our behalf. Teach and remind your teens of Jesus’ perfect life lived for them. He lived the life they could not live. Through faith in his perfect life and sacrificial death, our children receive the righteousness of Christ. Preach this good news to your teen over and over, for Jesus redeems the failures of life.
There are a few things harder than a parent watching a teen fail at something. Our desire to protect and keep them from failure comes from a place of love. But it’s also a loving thing to prepare them to fail. It’s loving to walk alongside our teens in their failures, helping them learn and grow in the process. Parents, let’s help our teens fail well.