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One Essential Skill You’re Probably Not Teaching Your Kids

August 12, 2019

One of the smartest exercises any parent can do is to make a list of all the skills you think are essential for your kids to lean before they leave home.  Not just important, but essential.  Skills nobody can live their best life without.  This list should start long but get whittled down to a list of half-a-dozen or so.  If you can, you may want to knock it down to 3 or 4.  Really!?  So there are that few essential skills?  Well, 3 or 4 may be too few.  But nobody can work on more than 6 things at a time, so don’t feel bad if you have to let some pretty good stuff go off of your draft list.

Whatever your list looks like, give yourself a quick (and soft) pat on the back once you’ve made it.  You’re a member of a very small group of intentional parents.  I mean really small.  If you want to bring a dinner party to a grinding halt, right before dessert is served, ask everybody what their list of essential skills for their kids looks like.  The odds overwhelmingly favor that you’ll be the only one at the gathering who knows what you’re talking about, let alone has a list.

Here’s one essential skill that I want you to put on your list: HOW TO FAIL SUCCESSFULLY.

Some people may appear to just be able to do this naturally, on an instinctive level, but I don’t think it’s natural or instinctive.  I think it’s a skill that everybody has to acquire.  Some people may acquire it more easily than others, but everybody has to learn how to fail successfully.

Here’s where you should start: talk about failure observationally.  My spell check doesn’t even recognize observationally as a word.  But it should.  Here’s why.  When I make an observation, it’s just an observation.  It doesn’t have to be judgmental.  It’s just me saying what I observe.  It’s not a value statement.  Anyway, it shouldn’t be.  It’s just an objective statement about something I see.  No judgement.  

It would probably sound something like this: “Hmmm.  That didn’t work so well, did it?”  Use your own words.  But make sure you don’t infer judgment.  You’re just making an observation.  Making a non-judgmental observation will often open a door for you to help your child think through what happened and identify what didn’t work, so they can decide not to do it again.  But if they feel judged by you, don’t expect them to be excited about you giving them input about all the ways they could do better next time.

Here’s the second thing: establish the function of failure.  Sounds stupid, I know.  But if you don’t get this right, you’ll never leverage failure for anything but feeling like a failure.  The function of failure is pretty simple, really.  It’s to help you identify what doesn’t work.

Thomas Edison is said to have answered an interviewer who asked him how it felt to have tried and failed with many thousand possible elements for his incandescent light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Man I wish I knew who taught him to frame things up that way!  I wish I’d been taught that way when I was a kid.

For me, failure wasn’t a signal that I may be moving in the right direction, because I’m eliminating dead ends.  It was a signal that I was a failure, because I failed.  Nobody ever used these words.  They didn’t have to.  I picked it up without any verbal communication.  When you fail, you’re a failure.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.  I’m 66, and I still have to try and do a work-around for this erroneous idea many times every day.  The actual truth is that when I fail, I’m not a failure.  I just experience failure in that particular endeavor.  It doesn’t define me.  It shouldn’t, anyway.

Third thing: teach your kids that once you identify what doesn’t work, stop doing it.  Easy-peasy.  NOT!  One of the hardest things in life is to stop doing things that don’t work.  Unless, that is, you have someone (like a parent or some other influential person in your life) teach you how to build the habit of learning from your mistakes, so you won’t repeat your failures.  We’re all pretty much broken toys, and we generally have this magnetic attraction that draws us back to doing things that don’t work.  “Maybe if I just try harder, that’ll make the difference.  I don’t know anything else to do, so I’ll just do what I’ve done before, and just put in a better effort.  Who knows, maybe it’ll work this time.”

Einstein is credited with saying, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insanity.”  Al was a smart guy.

There are probably dozens of ways to teach a kid how not to keep doing things that don’t work, but I know one way that will NEVER help anybody learn how to stop doing things that don’t work.  Especially when this technique is used by parents, teachers and coaches.  Shaming never promotes stopping what doesn’t work.  Not for the long haul.  It may create a temporary effect, but the collateral damage it leaves behind will actually make it harder to stop doing what doesn’t work.  And not just with the particular activity that comes under the spotlight.  I’ll write more about this later.  For now, just take my word for it.  Shame never promotes stopping what doesn’t work.


OK.  I’ve used up my allotment of words, so I’ll pause here.  There’s more I want to say about this.  You’ll need to come back and check on the “Part 2” of this.


I don’t give guarantees, because there are so few things in life (especially in relationships) that can be guaranteed.  So I’m not giving a guarantee about this, but I’ll tell you if you put these three things into play in your relationship with pretty much anyone, you will widen the odds that you’ll have a chance to have positive and helpful input into the whole failing successfully thing.

From → Marriage, Parenting

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  1. Five Things | HomeworK with Steve Thomas

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