Freak Out or Geek Out?: Children’s Emotional Reactions to Achievement

February 14th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Children and SuccessThese days, children seem to be given every opportunity by their parents to achieve success in school, sports, and the performing arts. Children receive private tutoring, coaching, and instruction. They attend summer camps devoted to their achievement activity. They seem to be assured of having every possible skill necessary to achieve success. Except one: emotional skill.

Sadly, this final piece of the achievement puzzle is rarely among the other pieces (and has often been lost under the sofa). Children are left to their own devices to find that elusive piece and many don’t. The result? Lacking the skills to “geek out” (my phrase for gaining emotional mastery) and put all of those other skills to great use, many children “freak out” (remember the 1978 Chic song?) and fail to achieve their goals. Given the inevitable challenges of achievement, the ability to geek out is essential for children’s success, regardless of the particular path they choose.

The ability of your children to have a positive emotional reaction begins with a firm grounding in their feeling loved, secure, and competent, in other words, their self-esteem. A positive emotional reaction also comes from ownership of their achievement activity, so that they are driven to succeed by their own passion, motivation, and determination. Finally, your children will develop a positive emotional response when they have internalized the emotional tools they need to react constructively to the inevitable obstacles and setbacks that they will experience as they pursue their goals.

Value of Success and Failure

There are many misconceptions about both success and failure that can interfere with your children’s efforts to become successful. One of the most damaging is the idea that successes never fail and failures always fail. Freak out! Yet the reality is that “successes” fail much more often than “failures.” People who are failures fail a few times and quit. But successes fail many times, learn from the failures, and begin to succeed because of what they learned. In time, the many failures and the lessons learned allow successes to succeed regularly. Learning to fail and learning from failure are essential contributors to success and a perspective that will foster children’s achievement. Geek out!

Failure provides benefits such as information about your children’s progress. Failure is the best means for your children to clearly and unambiguously see the areas they need to improve. Failure also indicates to your children what not to do in their efforts, which narrows down the possibilities of what they need to do to be successful. Failure also teaches the essential lessons of perseverance and the ability to overcome adversity. Geek out! Most fundamentally, as Dr. Wayne Dyer suggests, “Take the fear out of failure, and help children to understand the difference between failing at a task and being a failure as a person.”

Experiencing failure alone, though, will not help your children achieve success. Too much failure and your children will become discouraged, lose confidence and motivation, and come to view achievement as an unpleasant experience to be avoided. Your children also need to experience success because, if combined with a healthy perspective, success can provide invaluable lessons for your children’s pursuit of achievement in school, sports and beyond.

Success builds confidence and trust in your children, which helps them to overcome adversity, obstacles, and setbacks on the road of achievement. It validates the dedication, hard work, patience, and perseverance that your children devote to their goals. Success acts to motivate them to higher levels of achievement. Success also generates positive emotions, such as excitement, joy, pride, and happiness, that further reinforce their confidence, motivation, and passion.

With this perspective, success is not such an intoxicant that it inhibits further growth, and failure is not a such monumental loss that it diminishes the desire to pursue success. Rather they are both inevitable and necessary parts of the process leading toward success and fulfillment in their achievement activity.

Risk Taking

As we all know, achievement requires that children take risks to realize their fullest abilities and attain their goals. And taking risks is an essential part of your children’s developing a positive emotional response to their achievement activities. Only if your children are unthreatened by failure will they be willing to take risks because, by their very nature, risks increase the likelihood of failure. If your children see achievement as a challenge to pursue, they will understand that risks also provide the opportunity to achieve even greater success.  Geek out! Risk taking will enable your children to move out of their comfort zones, test their capabilities, gain confidence in themselves, and achieve new levels of success. When you look at great successes in all walks of life, you also see great risk takers. These “superstars” knew that only by taking risks were great rewards possible.

As the best-selling author Leo Buscaglia observed, “To try is to risk failure. But risks need to be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing and is nothing. They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel change, grow, love and live. Only a person who risks is free.”

Perspective on Mistakes

How your children come to understand the meaning of mistakes will have a dramatic effect on their ability to improve and achieve. As the poet Nikki Giovanni states, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the mistakes that counts.” Unfortunately, many parents often communicate a very different message. What happens if you convey to your children that mistakes are bad and reflect poorly on them? You are placing them in the vise of being expected to pursue success—which inevitably involves making mistakes—but knowing that they will be criticized for their mistakes. Your children may then become fearful of making even the smallest mistakes and eventually come to believe that if they make a mistake, they will be viewed with disappointment. Freak out! Says Dr. John Gray: “To expect children not to make mistakes gives them a cruel and inaccurate message about life. It sets a standard that can never be lived up to.”

Many parents and their children hold a negative perception about mistakes in spite of being able to see the world’s most successful people make mistakes routinely. Freak out! Because they do, it would seem not only expected but also acceptable that your children would, too. You need to communicate to your children that mistakes are a natural and necessary part of life. Your children must accept and learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are guides to what your children need to work on to improve. Geek out! Without them, betterment will be a random and undirected process. Mistakes can tell your children that they are taking risks and moving out of their comfort zone. If your children never make mistakes, they are probably not pushing themselves hard enough, they will not improve, and they will never become truly successful.

Respond Positively to Adversity

The road to success is a bumpy one. It’s filled with many barriers, setbacks, and struggles. Freak out! Some of this adversity is external to your children — demanding teachers, challenging assignments, tough competition. Internal obstacles exist too, including loss of motivation, decline in confidence, distractions, negative emotions, impatience, and the desire to give up. How your children respond to these demands will dictate the success that they ultimately attain. “How can we grow without struggle and doubt and a misstep or two? If we spare our children that—or try to—we’ll not be successful anyway; we’ll end up prodding them toward other kinds of troubles, the kind we may not have anticipated,” writes Robert Coles.

How your children learn to respond to adversity depends largely on how you respond to adversity, and the perspective you teach them about the inevitable setbacks they will experience in their lives. You should be keenly aware of your reactions to setbacks, whether in a relatively unimportant situation, such as having difficulty balancing your checkbook, or in a critical situation, such as losing out on a job promotion. If you show frustration, anger, or despair when you face obstacles, you will be modeling this behavior for your children. Freak out! If you remain calm, positive, and motivated, they will learn this reaction from you. Geek out!

Dr. Peter Goldenthal suggests the following ways to help your children respond positively to adversity:

  • Put the situation in perspective. Show your children that a setback is not the end of the world.
  • Don’t rush to the rescue. Let your children try to solve the problem themselves.
  • Play up the positive. Point out to your children all the good things that happened besides the obstacle.
  • Suggest step-by-step success. Help your children set goals using the setback as useful information.
  • Admit your own mistakes. Share with your children difficulties that you had when you were young and how you overcame them.

The Choice is Yours

So what will it be? Neglect such a fundamental component of your children’s development and pursuit of achievement and prepare them to freak out? Or give your children the perspectives and skills necessary to master the challenges of achievement and prepare them to geek out? The answer is obvious: Geek out!

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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