Failure is an odd topic in our culture. There are people who believe children shouldn’t experience failure, because it could somehow damage their fragile psyches. Others celebrate failure as something that makes us more approachable and even fun, looking down on those who want to learn, grow and improve from their failures.
As with many topics, God has some things He wants us to teach our kids about failure. Perhaps the first is the definition of failure. God doesn’t define success or failure by how much money your kids eventually make or how famous they become. To God success is living a life that ends with spending eternity in Heaven with Him.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with worldly success obtained in godly ways, your kids need to be taught their ultimate goal. Their standard of success is Heaven and the only real failure is rejecting God.
But what about all of those little failures in life that don’t necessarily have Heaven or Hell consequences? It’s important to teach your kids the difference between mistakes and sins. They have different motivations and different consequences. They also have some differences in how they need to be handled when each of those failures happens.
Mistakes are those little failures that have no connection to the commands God has given us. They may reveal a character flaw that needs additional work, but the motivation behind the original action was not a rebellion against God’s laws.
These mistakes happen regularly as children learn and grow. At times, you need to allow these mistakes to happen – and the natural consequences of those mistakes. Those natural consequences are often the best teacher. If your child doesn’t study enough for a test and misses answers, the consequence of a poor grade should provide the motivation for studying more the next time. There will be times when you will have to help your child make the connections between actions, failures, consequences and how to keep them from happening again in the future.
Other mistakes can arise from the clumsiness that often comes with a growth spurt or a lack of life experience. If no one has ever taught you to separate reds from whites when doing laundry, then the resulting pink clothes are a mistake from a lack of life experience.
Obviously, there are times when these mistakes require apologies, cleaning up the mess they created or making some sort of restitution. In general though, mistakes should be discussed with loving patience. Too much harsh criticism can make your kids so afraid of failure, they may be unwilling to do the good works God has planned for them. Like Moses, they will become paralyzed by their fear of failure – without the benefit of hearing God’s voice to help them work through those fears.
Finally, there are the mistakes your kids will make when they are trying something new. It may be learning a new concept in math or developing the gifts God has given them. They may make mistakes the first time they try to serve someone independently or share their faith. It is so crucial with these mistakes, that your response is encouraging. They need to learn to embrace these mistakes and learn and improve from them. If they stop trying because they are fearful of failure, it is highly unlikely they will ever reach their godly potential.
Sins on the other hand, come from a rebellious heart. Even though children before the age of accountability are not responsible for sins, they need to be taught that rebellion against God is unacceptable. Of course, this begins with rebelling against your authority by disobeying your rules. These failures are heart issues at their core – a selfishness that puts one’s own desires ahead of obedience and respect.
Heart issues are tough, but if dealt with at young ages you can help mold your kids hearts towards God. These failures must be discouraged and the heart molded away from selfish rebellion or your kids will have great difficulty obeying God as adults.
If your kids are old enough to become Christians, then it’s time to really focus on repentance and forgiveness. It’s important they understand repentance is not a kicking the dirt, glum, “sorry” to God. It is truly mourning the sin, asking God for forgiveness, thinking of ways to avoid committing the sin again and making any necessary restitution.
Failure is a complex subject, but taking the time and effort to help your kids understand it through God’s eyes can make them more resilient, more likely to use their gifts to serve God and share their faith and less likely to live a life enmeshed in sin. It’s worth every second you put in to helping your kids navigate failure in godly ways.