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  • Writer's picturePaula Robertson

Teaching children and young people to fail forward.

Learning how to grow from our mistakes is a key life skill.

What do Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey have in common? They all experienced failures on their way to success. Albert Einstein was thought to be a failure in his early years at school before going on to win a Nobel Prize and being credited with one of the greatest minds in physics and science. Thomas Edison was reportedly told by his teachers that “he was too stupid to learn anything”, before going on to own more than 1000 patents, including the electric lamp. Michael Jordan was cut from his High School basketball team before going on to be one of the greatest players of all time. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job as an anchor, and went on to eventually be a media mogul, with her own TV channel. These successful people all figured out how to tap into the power of failure and use it to propel them to greater success.

As Michael Jordan once said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Learning how to deal with failure in a healthy and affirming manner is one of the best life skills we can teach children and young people. Unfortunately, children and young people in today’s society may receive the message that failure, for example in examinations, is a total disaster, disrupting all future prospects. This attitude can leave young people afraid to learn, afraid to take risks, afraid to try…and yes, afraid to learn from their mistakes.

“There is no failure except in no longer trying” (Elbert Hubbard)

Our brains are actually wired to learn and grow from our mistakes. Think about how a young baby learns to walk – the baby’s attempts are clumsy at first, with many topples and falls before the skill of walking is acquired and becomes second nature. What if instead the baby had just given up, or said “this is too hard, I’ll never get it” on the first try? We need to reframe the way we think about failure – one of the best sayings I came across is to consider when we FAIL as just our First Attempt In Learning. The important thing is to regroup, figure out what we can learn from the experience, and what we can do differently to allow us to improve on our next attempt. After all, it is much better to be in the game of life and miss the shots sometimes, than to stand on the sidelines and miss the whole game. We miss out on life, and the opportunity to grow into our best selves if we’re afraid to try, and yes, sometimes that means we will fail on the way.

Let’s be honest.. no one enjoys failure in the moment. It can hurt, and often our pride takes a hit. But failure is never’s just an event, not a permanent state or a personal statement. It simply means that the action taken didn’t produce the desired result. That’s all! So the key is not to take it personally, then learn from the experience and move on. We should allow ourselves to make miss-steps along life’s path, so we don’t miss out on opportunities to learn about what works, and to grow and develop.

With the right inquisitive mindset, learning about what doesn’t work is just as valuable as learning what does. It’s important to be prepared to adapt and change our approach based on the lessons learnt from our failure though…continuing with the same actions on the same path will not produce different results. So ask yourself first what you can learn from the experience, and how you can change your approach for the next attempt.

What can we say to young people when they fail? First, set aside some time and try to turn it into a learning opportunity, by making statements such as:

  • I’m proud of the effort you made.

  • What did you learn from this experience?

  • What could you do to keep improving?

  • I know how hard you worked at this.

  • Let’s see if we can work through this together.

  • There is always time to improve.

Here are some additional tips for parents:

  1. Help your child learn valuable lessons from failure, and to use it as a learning opportunity for growth.

  2. When your child has really made an effort and fails, show that you are proud of them for the effort they made, and try to be positive with your reaction and body language.

  3. Praise the effort and hard work that your child puts into activities like training or games … winning isn’t everything.

  4. Be a role model … show a positive response to your own failures when they happen.

  5. Teach your child that it is important not to give up when they fail – the key is to figure out how you can learn and grow from the experience.

Remember - the more times we fail forwards, the closer we get to success!

Be well,


Dr Paula Robertson is a mom and a paediatrician with over twenty years' experience working with children, young people and their families.

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