Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 16, 2010

Ask Evelyn: Helping survive failure

Local columnist

---- — Q: My 15-year-old daughter has been working day and night practicing for an audition for a leading role in a play at school. She's done historical research and has even memorized the lines. There is, however, a senior girl in the drama club that I feel sure will get that lead role. Our child is new to the club and is only a sophomore. I'm worried that she will be devastated if she doesn't get the part. I think she should quit the drama club and not go through this trauma. — E.K.

A: I know you love and empathize with your daughter and hate to see her hurt, but you need to look at this with a broader perspective. You want to protect and help your child, but helpful love is not always about protection or security. Helpful love can also mean encouragement to risk and discover that we can survive failures. Love means helping our children prepare for coping with life in the long run, not just the present.

If our children are to learn how to cope and survive successfully in this risky world, we must allow them to learn how to deal with stress and risk in age-appropriate ways. One learns by coping with tough situations, not avoiding them. We can't protect them from all risks and disappointments; instead we must teach them the survival skills to surmount them.

One way to look at this is with an analogy about skiing. What's the first thing the instructor always teaches you when you are learning to ski? It's how to get up when you fall down. They tell you how to do it, but you must learn by actually falling down and getting up yourself. Falling is inevitable, so we need to be sure that we can handle it. You learn how to pick yourself up from things that happen to you in life in the same way.

Young people should be encouraged to take risks like trying out for the team or for a part in a play. Risking the disappointment of failure is hard, but this is the way they will learn that they CAN survive and go on. Similarly, sometimes they need to learn on their own, so that they can live through a period of sadness and go on when a peer relationship changes or ends.

It is also important to allow them the full measure of their pain and disappointment. When we say, "Well, you tried hard" or "Well, I think you should have gotten the part" it only discounts their feelings. Instead, parents need to acknowledge their children's pain. Show you understand their feelings by sharing some memories you have about your own bitter disappointments in school.

Don't overprotect your teens from taking risks when the risk is appropriate.

Help them discover their own capabilities by encouraging the exploration of sensible risks and reinforcing the strengths that can develop from overcoming disappointment.

Evelyn Petersen is an award-winning parenting columnist and early childhood educator and author who lives in Traverse City; see her website at For more columns from Evelyn Petersen, visit