The Feel-Good Failure


Have we gone too far by nurturing a”feel-good,” entitlement-based
mentality for kids today?

Kids today grow up surrounded by an “everyone’s a winner”
message-but reality is, not everyone can win first place or make an
A-plus or be the popular kid. So what happens when kids experience
failure, rejection, or exclusion-especially if we’ve set them up to
believe that life will always be fair and everyone’s entitled to
equal accolades, standing, and possessions? Have we gone so far
promoting a feel-good culture for kids that we’re shortchanging
them by not teaching them how to lose or fail? Cruise through these
insights, cultural snapshots, and expert advice that shed light on
this cultural phenomenon-then join the conversation.

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An Entitlement- Free Outlook

When it comes to reversing kids’ assumptions that they’re
entitled to win, receive, and achieve, work to redirect their
thinking. I recommend moving forward to “entitlement-free” rather
than backward to pre-entitlement thinking of You get what you get
and you don’t get upset. Build constructively on the notion that
“everyone’s a winner” (or, better articulated: Everyone has
strengths, unique abilities, and talents). Yes, everyone’s a
winner-just not at the same time or in the same ways.

Parents, teachers, and coaches are facilitators for children to
grow into problem-solvers and solution-makers through challenging
situations. Children often take their cues from adults when they
fall apart after taking second place or get a low test score.
Conversely, if adults are emotion coaches hearing kids’ struggles
and helping them find constructive perspectives, kids learn
flexibility and resilience.

  • Encourage humor. Prepare children for
    potential outcomes. If a child is a star athlete or an A-plus
    student, then help that child generate empathy for kids who aren’t
    those things. Bring different perspectives and personalities into
    your discussions. Tell silly stories about everyone crossing the
    finish line at the same time-one child with untied shoes, one with
    a leg cramp, one riding a tiger (silliness and absurdity can teach,
    too). Grapple with scenarios together. How about a teacher who gave
    everyone A’s? How would that feel-fair? honest? effective?
  • See others’ perspectives. Ask kids what makes
    “winners” more successful than others. Luck? Talent? Effort? Why or
    why not? Guide kids to see that their effort toward the goal is
    what matters, not the end result. Research is clear that praise is
    most effective when focused on kids’ effort and the process itself
    rather than the outcomes, so encourage kids for their attempts and
  • Guide kids to see and develop personal strengths and
    The child who’s chosen last on the playground
    may be the one who can help other kids with math. Help kids
    understand that our strengths and skills aren’t the same-and that’s
    good. There are good reasons we’re all created differently;
    wouldn’t it be boring if we weren’t? Spend time with kids exploring
    their gifts, talents, and interests.
  • In the end, check back to see whether winning really
    So often children are disappointed because they
    think the outcome or result is the measure of the experience. Try
    asking kids these questions to help them think through whether
    winning really is all that matters:

    • Would you still want to play the game if you never came in
      first or won?
    • What do you like about playing a sport aside from winning?
    • What do you think that grade measured?
    • What did you learn from the experience?
    • What would you do differently if you could do it over?

    Whenever you’re working to redirect kids’ attitudes of
    entitlement, remember that parents bring insight, perspective, and
    values to each of these discussions. Kids and their parents are
    learning together how to think and feel in challenging, real-life
    situations in our current culture. The hardest part of
    entitlement-free thinking is taking time to slow down to carve out
    a unique, humble identity as a family and for each child.

Karen Deerwester is the owner of Family
Time Coaching & Consulting and author of The Entitlement-Free
Child (Sourcebooks, Inc.).

The Resilience Factor

“Children who face adversity are more likely to persevere if
they have a set of cognitive and emotional skills known as
self-regulation. These skills include seeing the consequences of
one’s actions, planning ahead, setting goals, being focused and
attentive, and especially learning to be proactive,” says John
Buckner, Ph.D. “On the non-cognitive side, self-regulation means
learning to control emotions such as anger and frustration. These
are the building blocks of effective coping in life.” Buckner and
doctors Enrico Mezzacappa and William Beardslee conducted a study
examining how children’s self-regulation skills impacted their
resilience in adverse situations. The study was recently published
in Development and Psychopathology.

“The findings are particularly important because self-regulation
skills can be taught and learned,” Bucker says. “When a teacher
helps a child pay attention in class or a coach counsels a kid who
throws the bat after striking out, those adults are teaching
self-regulatory skills. This is something that many parents and
educators do already, but a heightened focus could help many
children become more resilient.” The strongest independent
predictor of resilience (competence despite adversity) was a
child’s self-regulation skills, although parental monitoring also
played a role.

Free Pass?

“In an effort to broaden horizons, parents have introduced a
generation of young people to as many activities and opportunities
as possible-soccer, fencing, dance, Mandarin,” says CEO
Michael Brunner in Forbes Magazine. “The kids are then allowed to
quit when they become challenged or bored and want to move on to
the next thing. Of course, parents want them to have all the things
we didn’t enjoy when we were growing up-yes, I’m a boomer-and that
explains the esteem-boosting idea that everybody plays, everybody
wins, and everybody gets a trophy. But is it possible we’ve made
life too easy for our kids?”

Farewell, Sports
About 25 million kids play competitive school sports in
the U.S. It’s estimated that up to 70 percent of kids drop out of
organized sports by age 13. Why? The most common reason is “it
stopped being fun.”

Source: NYU Child Study Center and Youth Sports Quality

No Winners or Losers

“Today, being competitive appears to be politically incorrect. The
thinking is that if everyone can’t win a blue ribbon or trophy for
first place, team sports are bad and children are irreparably
damaged from the hurt of the loss. There are no winners and losers
today-everyone is a winner…What a negative lesson to teach a kid
who is striving to be the best at something or even has a God-given
talent and achieves above others.”

Katy Grimes, blogging at

The Feel-Good Failure
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