Parents’ response to failure dictates a child’s self-perception


Consider the reactions of two parents whose son has come home with a bad grade: The permissive mother simply shrugs her shoulders, accepting that he’s just not the best student, while the authoritarian father criticizes the boy’s performance, expecting only perfection.

While these reactions may exist on opposite sides of the parenting spectrum, both can lead to feelings of inferiority in a child. Research now shows that parents’ first responses to failure may have the most definitive outcome on a child’s perception of personal intelligence – even more than parents’ articulated views on intelligence.

Study on parental approaches to failure

Professor Carol Dweck, Ph.D., has been hailed as a pioneer in mindset research. She and psychological scientist Kyla Haimovitz, Ph.D., of Stanford University, studied how children stigmatized failure as positive or negative based on their parents’ reactions to the kids’ setbacks.

In a research questionnaire of just under 75 parent-child duos, kids who viewed intelligence as fixed reflected parents who associated failure with negativity.

In two online studies of more than 300 participants, parents who saw failure in a bad light would respond to a child’s hypothetical failing grade by reportedly:

  • Doubting their child’s abilities
  • Not being as likely to show enthusiasm for child’s learning and improvement

This is despite those same parents’ belief that one can grow in intelligence.

The moment of truth

Take an honest look at your parental responses. In that same scenario above, if the boy has a test upcoming and then comes home with a bad grade. Would you:

It may seem obvious the mother who’s resigned to a child’s underachievement and passive abiding his academic progression is not setting the boy up for success; but the other parent who may hold expectations like an anvil overhead can also be hampering the child.

Study findings demonstrate a growth mindset, coupled with a positive and constructive reaction to a child’s failures sends the message of individual capability and failure as a step toward success, not a marker for weakness.

The takeaway

“It is important for parents, educators, and coaches to know that the growth mindset that sits in their heads may not get through to children unless they use learning-focused practices, like discussing what their children could learn from a failure and how they might improve in the future,” Haimovitz emphasizes.

Instead of the nonchalant shrug, the exasperated sigh or making an enabling excuse for the child, the takeaway is avoiding a knee-jerk response, asking for the child’s opinion before giving yours and initiating practical and quality resources to improve. Whether its academics, sports or a performance, how mom or dad respond will shape children’s motivation to try again with earnest, or reconcile themselves to disappointment.

Everyone has stories with which we justify our behaviors, based on circumstances we likely experienced in youth. Before we learn to separate events and our interpretations thereof, many can point to a time when they perceived they were viewed as a failure. Young men who turn to drugs or alcohol to cope, or slip into mental disorder, can find esteem, a positive peer culture and recovery here at White River Academy.

WRA is a formidable and familial team of therapists, alternative therapy experts and residential attendant’s. Our hub of professionals is dedicated to tailoring treatment to each teenage boy for lasting recovery from mental health issues, which manifest as addiction, behavioral problems and mental disorders. We keep parents and staff up to date with the latest in emerging treatment modalities and research, health news and local events.

About the author

Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. 

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