Everyone wants to be a success. No one wants to be a failure. And understandably so. Success and failure, however, are terms meant to define events, not people. You are either successful at doing something, or achieving some milestone, or you failed at doing something or did not achieve some milestone. That does not imply that you are a complete success or a complete failure. There are other aspects of you that you may not be so successful at, or that you may not be such a failure at. The most successful person (if there can be such a term) may have a large bank balance, but may be a complete failure as a parent or a spouse. And a person who has been an absolute failure at business, may be an unbelievably good parent or an amazing friend.
So success and failure are terms used to describe how we did at a particular event in our life – not how we are in totality. But every so often we are unable to see the difference.
We often believe that we are a success, and our child must be a success. And the hint of failure in any small aspect of our life, or theirs, sends us into a tizzy. Or we believe that we have been a failure and therefore want to make sure that our children don’t end up as failures! If a child fails in an exam we call them failures; we project that they will remain failures for the rest of their lives. Whereas they may have just failed at an exam, and there may be several other aspects of life that they may have been successful at or successful in. We don’t allow ourselves to see or acknowledge that they may be great in sports, they may be wonderfully empathic human beings, they may be great artists and wonderful singers, they may be good orators or creative problem solvers, they may be honest and helpful, or that they may have wonderful people skills. We overlook all of this and brand them as a failure because they failed at an exam!
Similarly, if we lose our job, we brand ourselves as a failure, sometimes to the point of never being able to recover again. We interpret that failure at that particular job as a verdict on us, and our entire life, never allowing us to bounce back and think of ourselves in any other terms.
To accept our children in totality (and accept we must) with all their strengths and weaknesses, we need to understand success and failure as terms used to define events and not people. Which means that we need to look at ourselves also as people who have been successful in some aspects of our lives, and failures at others. We need to acknowledge and accept things that we failed at and we need to be comfortable talking about our failures. Can we accept our past failures, and take stock of what we learned from the experience? Are we comfortable with having failed in certain aspects and able to talk to our children about our failures? Can we make our failures, and how we dealt with them, an integral part of dinner-time conversations? Only then can we help our children accept failure as just another event in their lives – a learning opportunity that came their way – rather than something that fatally defines them in totality.
Some failure is inevitable – in our life, and in the life of our children. Equipping our children with life skills that will help use the failure to gain a deeper understanding of themselves, and gain new learnings from the situation, will be an invaluable gift that we can give them – far more valuable than the biggest bank balance that we may be slaving for. It will teach them the importance of resilience – of bouncing back in the face of adversity, and not letting adversity define them. And the sooner they learn this life lesson, the better off they will be.
But, children learn from what they see and experience, not from what we say or scream about. So that means they will learn life lessons around success and failure from how we, as parents, experience and deal with success and failure ourselves. They need to see us model behavior that takes failure in its stride. They need to see us learn from our failures. They need to see us fall down and then bounce back again – sometimes to newer heights, and sometimes to fall down again. They also need to see us succeed at some things, and take success in its stride. They need to see us experience joy in our successes.
In short, they need to see us experience failure and success, but most of all they need to see success and failure as temporary events in our life, not permanent life-defining states of being. In the words of John Wooden, “Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It's courage that counts.”
Courage in the face of adversity, and humility in the face of prosperity, is what we need to model as parents. Only then will our children experience it from us, and only then will they learn to live it. And then, and only then, will we have helped them grow into resilient adults, ready to face all the challenges and joys, successes and failures, that life will throw in their path.
Never underestimate the power of our influence – negative and positive – on the lives of our children. Let’s strive to maximize the positive and minimize the negative.
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.