Lessons in failure: Teaching my kids to find purpose in the mess-ups of lifeWritten by Stephen Miller
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If it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something, then I’m confident I’ve clocked enough hours to be considered a professional failure artist. My wife and children have been active witnesses to the majority of my many missteps.
Some failures were trivial, while others nearly cost me my life – like on the fateful day I was stacking metal horse stalls during my shift at the rodeo arena. I nearly met my gruesome end after somehow pinning myself between a stack of disassembled panels and the 3,500-pound dinosaur of a forklift I hadn’t learned to respect.
Other failures were less perilous. For example, I’ve put my foot in my mouth so many times that I think I’ve acquired a taste for it. Once I told my wife in a heated discussion not to yell because it was – and I quote – “not becoming” of her. (And here I’d thought that telling my wife to calm down was the worst line I could pull from my bag of word tricks.)
Still, I’m thankful for many of my failures. Because my kids have gotten to see me fall on my face – and then get back up, learning from each misadventure. I want to show them that failure has been the best coach, mentor and personal trainer that my effort could buy.
I’ve learned three liberating truths along the way that have guided me through all my mess-ups. These truths are helping me give my kids a framework for failing well and developing resiliency.
Truth #1: Failures don’t define us
When my kids get it wrong – and they will because they’re human – I want them to know that failure is not their identity. Still-greasy dishes stacked in the cabinets on the kids’ night for dish duty or a call from a teacher telling us that one of our kids is struggling in school are teachable moments. They may have failed, but they are not failures. They may have messed up, but they are not mess-ups.
I understand that the doubt-filled questions my kids ask themselves can feed their fear of failure.
What if I say the wrong thing?
What if people laugh or think less of me?
Yes, there are natural consequences that come from failures. But my job as a dad is to remind my children that our failures can’t rob us of our God-given identity and purpose. Rather, our failures may actually move us closer to that purpose.
I want my kids to realize that God might use failure to close the wrong door that they kept trying to force their way through or save them from a painful relationship. He might allow alarming consequences from unhealthy or destructive behaviours and beliefs so they can be set free.
Truth #2: Failures are not final
The sun will rise again tomorrow with a whole new chance for my kids to make it right and build from the rubble of their mistakes. If you burn yourself on the stove, hopefully you’re careful grabbing a hot pan in the future. If you get a speeding ticket, hopefully you learn to be a safer driver.
I’ve faced prison time in court and paid thousands of dollars in fees. But I want to show my kids how to be honest, own up to mistakes, take responsibility, walk with integrity, apologize and try to make a better decision the next time. Nothing good has ever come from me making excuses, being defensive, shifting blame or acting like I don’t make mistakes because I’m the dad.
Truth #3: Failures have the power to refine
With guidance, children can shift their perspective to see that a moment of failure is happening for them rather than to them. I want them to reframe their perspective without rewriting the truth. Not just moving on but moving forward with the hard-won wisdom they earned from their mess-up.
The failure to clean up food in their bedrooms leads to bugs. How should they respond? Will they be a victim? Will they blame-shift? Or will they keep the food out of their room?
Procrastinating leads to failed tests, and consequently, losing privileges until they bring up their grades. What do they do? Blame teachers? Or do what it takes to pull up their grades and have privileges reinstated?
There is a real beauty to young people taking responsibility, owning up to mistakes, and learning and growing from each one. They can get more out of their mess-up than what they lost. They can let it seed their blessings rather than feed their fears and paralyze them with anxiety.
My job isn’t to shame my kids. Discipline? Sure. Correct behaviour? Absolutely. But more than that, it’s to lift their eyes to our Saviour who took on all their fears and failures, mistakes and mess-ups. Jesus gave them a better identity amid their getting it wrong than they could ever earn with all their efforts to get it right.
I want my children to fail big, beautifully, fast and often. Does that sound crazy? Maybe. But it’s because I also want them to succeed. To win. To be the best version of themselves. And along the way, they’ll gain a certain resilience that only comes from failing.
Let’s do this thing
I’m always going to be my kids’ biggest hype man. You want to change the world? You’ve got this. You’re probably going to get it wrong a good bit along the way, but your mom and I are going to be cheering you on, helping you stand when you fall. We’re going to challenge you and encourage you and love you through it all.
It’s often said that the goal of parenting is to prepare kids for the real world. Someday they’ll move out and get jobs and pay bills and take care of themselves. This objective seems overly pragmatic to me. I want to believe the goal is to make sure my kids feel loved and worthy – like they matter and can do great things. I want to raise kids who dream big and then work hard to make those dreams a reality. This is preparing them for the real world.
© 2023 Stephen Miller. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Originally published in the June/July 2023 issue of Focus on the Family magazine.
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