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  • Lori K Walters

I can’t stand to watch my kid fail.


Aerial view of snowy field and misty mountain.



I hear this often from parents of teenagers and young adults: 

I'm so afraid they're going to fail that I can't stand to watch.

I feel like I'm the failure when things don't go right for them.

I desperately want to step in and make it go perfectly for them.

I don't want to watch/be on the receiving end of their frustration and disappointment.

I feel sick to my stomach knowing how it's going to turn out and not being able to prevent it. 


These are pretty strong feelings. And while it wouldn't be anything new for me to say that we can't protect our kids from failure, I’m inviting you to take a closer look at your own relationship with failure. Because when you have realistic, self-compassionate views about failure, then you can be parenting realistically and compassionately when your kids fail. 


So, what exactly is your relationship with failure?

Great? Sorta ok? Terrified?  


When I was a kid, I did well in school. I always had the top marks and won the academic awards. I had an exceptional memory and, since that’s how the school system is set up, I excelled. The first time I did poorly was in first year college when I read some exam instructions incorrectly and did half of what was expected. I got an F and was completely devastated. 


To be exact, I was embarrassed. I didn't want anyone to know I had screwed up. I didn't even have the courage to explain what happened to the instructor and ask for another opportunity. I was full of shame. 


Peeling back a layer, I think I was imagining my instructor and classmates thinking I’m an idiot. If I had asked my 20-year-old self what I assumed would be at risk if I were regarded as an idiot, I might have answered that they would tease me. Delving deeper, what consequence of teasing was I imagining? Well, they’ll probably reject me.


Ooof, that’s a tender spot. And that means a really bad thing is just a step away – that I will be rejected by the whole world, laughed off the planet and left utterly alone.  


There it is, my true fear. 




Of course, it's different for each of us. I talked about this with a colleague and as we ventured into the layers of her relationship with failure, she arrived at an image of a cliff and that, if she made one more mistake, she would go over the edge and fall, hard. And never be able to regain people’s respect. And love.


What fears might be under the surface for you? 


It's the explorations of our presumptions and imaginings that bring us closer to registering that we are human beings with real limits. We have incapacities, fragilities, inexperience and ignorance. And beneath them are our very real fears of being without love, dignity, safety and belonging.

 

~


Curious to explore?


Find a quiet comfortable spot. Breathe gently until you’re grounded and present.


Now think of when you've recently faced failing. If this feels daunting, choose something small, like losing your phone or not being able to run another lap. If a deep dive feels welcome, focus on that bigger thing.

 

  • What did your fear have you imagining might happen? Write it down or say it out loud.

  • And if that happened, what would it mean or what might it cause?

  • Keep questioning that part of you.

  • What’s the worst-case scenario you'd be risking?

  • What Bad Thing would you be susceptible to?

  • And if that Bad Thing happened, then what?

 


Name the real fear beneath your fear of failure. Go ahead and say hello to it.


Take a few gentle breaths and just be there.


When you’re ready, ask what it came to show you today.


Listen with your whole self, gently, curiously.  Stay, even if it's uncomfortable.


Breathe.


Trust whatever comes to you. Whether it’s one word or more, an image or just a glimpse, it’s for you. Hold out your hands, see it and accept it with gratitude.


It’s part of you and that’s good to know.


~




And then there are our teen and 20-something kids embarking on various ventures that could lead to failure… How does your relationship with failure affect your way of parenting in these situations?


“I'm so afraid they're going to fail that I can't stand to watch.”  What part of you can't stand to watch? What is that part imagining they'll see or be required to do? What would that mean about you?


“I just want to step in and make it go well for them.” What are you trying to avoid or ensure for yourself (not them)? What are you assuming about that thing happening?


 If you're recognizing a growth edge within yourself with respect to failure, you might want to practice failing...


Maybe take up the cello and hear yourself, squeak by squeak. Or woodworking or Japanese. Do something blindfolded or one-handed. Find some activity that you're not good at and do it every day this week. 

At the end of each day, jot down three things:

  • Thoughts you had about doing well/ poorly, getting it right/ wrong, or succeeding/ failing. 

  • If you felt uncomfortable, where was the discomfort located in your body and what did it feel like? What did that discomfort suggest you do instead - quit, stop making a fool of yourself, buckle down and try harder, go faster and get it over with…?

  • Emotions that arose doing this poorly. Rage, shame, hopelessness... Be as specific as you can.   

At the end of the week, look over what you've written and see if you can summarize your beliefs and feelings about failing. Then generate a list of the upsides that you experienced. And, if you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear how this went and what you realized.

 

~


All this leaves me wondering what might be possible for our youth if they are raised by parents who are ok with their own failure. 


We could help them refine their beliefs about 'success' and 'failure'. We could help them notice their fears and where they have taken up residence in their bodies. We can help them name the emotions that accompany the prospect of failure, and, this makes me smile, we can help them identify the upsides of their fumbles and failures. 


We could stop adding to their discomfort with the energy of our Teetering Fear, Erupting Frustration or Foot-on-the-Brake Caution. We could stand beside them and hold clearer space for them to be awkward and disoriented and confused and uncertain and frustrated…


We could be a reliable presence as they (and we) grow and learn.




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Photo by jaanus Jagomagi on Unsplash

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