Reinventing Failure: How to Help Your Kids Deal with Mistakes

An Easy 5-Step Process That Promotes Learning

Reinventing Failure: How to Help Your Kids Deal with Mistakes

This subject came about from my listening to Tony Robbins’ book called “Unlimited Power.” If you haven’t ever listened, it is a treat, not to mention really full of valuable information.

In the course of the program, Tony talks about how we view failure, and how that view becomes a stumbling block to progress. He suggests that instead of using the word failure, we should substitute the word “results” or “outcomes.”

Just by that change in wording, we change our perception from something that has a very negative connotation to something that has a neutral connotation. Outcomes are factual. They are what happen when you take a particular action. You may like the outcomes or you may not. They may have hit your intended goal or they may not. Regardless, outcomes are something that occur from your choices and actions and you create them.

Outcomes can be changed, tweaked, revisited or even overhauled. Failure hangs over us like a blanket of fog that can’t be lifted.

How to Use This with Our Kids

This concept is really useful for our kids. All kids make mistakes or poor choices at times. They also take risks and try things out, sometimes fall short of our expectations, or deviate from the path we think is in their best interests.

When expectations are not met, whether they come from us, from teachers, from peers, or from our kids themselves, the usual conclusion applied is that our kid failed. Sometimes we say it. Sometimes someone else says it. And always, our kids eventually say it to themselves.

For them, it is much more than just failing at something, or making a mistake, or not living up to expectations. They internalize that feeling and apply it not only to their behavior, but to themselves too. Instead of “I failed,” they easily make the crossover to “I’m a failure.”

This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and as more failures pile up, the feeling of being a failure begins to invade their entire identity. They become chronically anxious and create impossible expectations leading to perfectionism, or adopt an attitude of “I don’t care.” “Everyone thinks I’m a failure anyway, so why not be one.”

What to Do

We can avoid this by helping our kids learn to look at mistakes or “failures” as outcomes. To do this, begin by taking the word “failure” out of the equation and use either the word results or outcome, whichever fits better for you. 

For younger kids, results may be better. Results has a more positive connotation and subconsciously alludes to the desire or drive to take some action to meet a goal.

If your child faltered on a reasonable expectation, or a chose a behavior that missed the mark, follow this procedure:

#1  Identify

Identify what happened. “I made this choice, and these are the results.” What action or lack of action occurred, and what results followed. Do this with a calm, even approach rather than an emotional one.  Just the facts.

# 2  Listen

The second step is to listen to your child’s feelings about what happened.  For this step, it’s important to stay attentive and interested, and ask a minimum of questions so that your child does most of the talking. Regardless of what the mistake was, and what outcomes were reached, your goal in this step is to understand how your child is processing the situation emotionally, and to confirm back that you understand his point of view.

#3  Analyze

Revisit what the goal was: “What are the results you wanted to accomplish or to produce?” Even when kids make impulsive decisions, they always have a goal. It may just be to have someone’s attention or to be noticed, or to discharge an emotion, or to be soothed. The point is, there is always a motive even if not consciously known. Help your child figure out what that was, because it will get him thinking about his motives for his behavior, and help to him understand how he handles his emotions.

#4  Correct

Identify the changes in behavior or actions that need to be taken to get different results. “What do you need to do or change to get the outcomes you want?”

#5  Assist

Ask how you can help to assist with the new chosen path. Help may simply be support, but sometimes something more is needed. The trick is to provide help without crowding. This means let your child do as much as they can on their own to solve the problem. Avoid rescuing.

A Shift in Your Role

This may sound elementary, but it really is effective. By participating in helping your child look neutrally and objectively at what outcomes occurred when a particular choice was made or action taken, you are on his side.

You are helping him think through the situation, analyze it, and figure out the next step. You are not on the opposite side of the table pointing out where he went wrong.  You are:

  • An ally instead of an accuser
  • A mentor who can help rather than a gloater (I told you this would happen!)
  • A parent who affirms your child’s worth even when he makes mistakes

This last one is key. It’s our job as parents to love and value our kids just because they are, not because of what they do. This is the definition of unconditional love, and when your child feels that love in spite of her mistakes, she is less likely to internalize her “failures” as part of her identity, and more likely to be able to bounce back from mistakes and make corrections.

The Silver Lining

One last thing to mention that usually happens when you use this process: You will find out the feelings your child may have had when choosing a behavior or course of action. Even though you are approaching the situation objectively, you will be giving her a chance to tell you how she feels about what is happening in her life.

There are always emotions driving behaviors and actions, and part of analyzing outcomes allows those emotions to surface so that you can talk about them and help your child deal with them. Helps you too, because you have a clearer pulse on what’s going on inside of her mind and heart, and you can be there for her.


When your child makes a mistake, especially if it has to do with overstepping boundaries or rules you have set up, you can still use this process. You will not be backing down on the rules and limits you have put in place, but you will help your child see that his or her own behavior brings about the results, whatever they may be, if expectations are not meant. This takes it out of the realm of a power struggle, and gets your child used to feeling responsible for his own actions, and that is a major accomplishment!

Food for thought: How do you handle failure, and how were mistakes viewed in your family of origin?

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