THE BLOG
12/03/2013 02:48 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2014

Teaching Children How to Navigate Failure

Sarah Walton

One of the hardest things for me, as a mom, is knowing that I have to turn my children over to the world. I don't want to sometimes. There are days I would prefer to keep them tucked safely under my wings, with blankets, books and comfort food.

But of course, that's not my job.

My job is to work myself out of a job. To teach my kids not to need me. And as much as that doesn't sound fun, I know it's the best thing I can do for them.

My son started second grade this year, as a happy, eager-to-learn 7-year-old. But within the first week, he'd encountered a bully, the experience of being too small (and a little too uncoordinated) to play sports with some of his friends, and kids wanting to copy his work because he's the smartest in the class.

That's a lot for one child to take in a week.

He came home dejected, sad and quiet. Quite different from the boy I had sent off to school a few days earlier. He would cry easily, and he seemed so upset and tired.

My instinct was so swoop in, make him feel better, and make it all go away. But again, not my job.

I constantly checked in with myself, asking what can I teach him, what can we both learn from this and how to make sure he feels loved and supported as I keep sending him back into the world each day where he will have to deal with this on his own.

Of course I listened, asked him questions, checked with the teacher to see what his 7-year-old eyes may have missed and even spoke with the principal to make sure I had the full story. Unfortunately, I did.

I happen to believe there are few accidents in life, and this story is no exception. The week that school started, a friend suggest that I read How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. Honestly, I suggest this book for every parent, and well, non-parent. It's much more about human nature and the skills we'll need to truly succeed than it is just about children.

The book discusses, in great detail, the importance of teaching our children grit, self-control, zest (awesome word, right?), social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

And here I was, faced with an opportunity to do just that with my son. This wasn't a problem that was going to fix itself, this wasn't something I could wish away. This was life, coming directly at my child. I felt it was my responsibility to teach him how to navigate through it, not to fix it for him. That would rob him of the opportunity to learn these skills.

As this was happening and I was trying to figure out what to do, I remembered one of my favorite quotes from Viktor E. Frankl: "In between the stimulus and the response, there is a space. In that space lies our power."

Mean kid being the stimulus, I now had an amazing opportunity to teach my son about that space and how to really use it wisely, before he offers a response. I mixed that in with the lessons from How Children Succeed and I felt like I had a lot of work ahead.

We started by going through the interactions and conversations he was having on a daily basis. Without judgment, we'd walk through what he had said, how he could have responded differently and what difference we think it would have made. I tried to inject humor and silliness where I could, but he knew it was a real life skill I was sharing, and so did I. I watched him actively absorb it, fight it, submit to it, and finally, accept it.

And I figured, why not? Why not role-play and see what happens? It's what we do for academic learning, right? It's what we do for sports, for acting, for pre-tests and for interviews. I wanted to see if it would work for social interactions as well.

Turns out, it does.

My son started reporting better stories after school, he has been standing up for himself without being mean, and he's learning that the other kids have hard things they're going through, too.

For the sports, my husband would spend time with our son in the backyard, throwing the ball over and over again. Talking about how much experts practice, that they do it even when they don't "feel like it" and that the "I don't feel like it" voice is one we all have. We can choose to give into it, or we can choose to keep going anyway.

It doesn't hurt that my husband is a marathon runner, so we had a real-life example of what it takes to do something hard. "Most mornings I don't want to run. I'd rather sleep! But I said I would get up, so I go."

I must have heard my husband say that to our son dozens of times.

In an age of "gimme" and constant, relentless, instant gratification, I was happy to have an opportunity to show my son that anything worth having is worth working for. And while things can come easily at times, we should be prepared to work for what we want. Hard work is good.

As the weeks of school have continued, he's now playing sports on the playground, he's continuing to stand up for himself and he's being more generous with helping the other kids with their work. I have a feeling these weeks have created a turning point for him. Life comes at us, we don't really get a say in how that goes. But we have 100% complete control over how we respond to it.

Unfortunately, he just told me last night that the "bully" was crying in school yesterday.

My son reported with glee: "Ha! Now it's his turn! What a baby!"

That sound you just heard was my face palm. Ugh. Now for the lessons in compassion and empathy.

The underlying good news is that at least I know he'll still need me for quite a while longer....