Ever get the impression your toddler thinks he’s just as big and powerful as you? It’s not your imagination getting out of hand; as far as he’s concerned, he’s the master of his own domain. But in a few years from now he is going to come face to face with that monster lurking around the corner —- the inevitable scrutiny, evaluation and faultfinding from others, and then he will begin to question his power. Unless we teach our children how to embrace mistakes, defeats, our self-confident little dynamo may learn to fear ridicule and reprimand. Eventually, he may even rely on outside evaluation to assess his own performance, measure his self-worth, and shape his future choices.
Why does this happen? Simple. We humans are pack animals, and toddlers are no exception. Heck, I’ve seen a few of my own howl at the moon and roll around in disgusting stuff from time to time. And like all pack animals, we have a strong need to belong. What our kids often don’t learn is that this need can be satisfied in two ways —- earning acceptance by offering unique contributions or roles that benefit the pack or begging for acceptance by making all choices contingent upon whatever will win the pack’s approval. If they choose compliance over contribution, failure can become a ball and chain for our kids and the adults they will become.
Of the hundreds of children I interviewed in researching my book over the past few years, most cited failure phobia as the one factor responsible for their frequent reluctance to make choices. In the same interview process, teachers and parents both insisted that the numbers of those children they consider underachievers (those who choose not to choose, because they are afraid their choices will result in failure) and perfectionists (those who choose according to the highest possible social standards, because they are afraid that making a lesser choice will make them less acceptable) are escalating at an alarming rate. People from either group become afraid to make decisions in fear that the product of their thoughts may produce failures that weaken their sense of worth. Instead, they rely on others to do the thinking for them. Once they rely on others to guide them through life, they will likely grow to be adolescents and adults that are no longer able to think for themselves at all.
The bottom line: children who can’t handle failure well allow their choices to be governed by their need for approval rather than their sense of right and wrong. And when that approval is dispensed by their peers and shaped by the pop culture, they often fall prey to substance abuse, promiscuity, deteriorating academics, gang involvement, low self-esteem, lack of creativity, irresponsibility, and other commonplace problems. For those who aren’t rewarded with the approval they seek, there’s frustration, anger, cynicism, apathy, depression, rebellion, aggressive or violent behavior, and so on.