I have a 5-year-old son who gets frustrated easily. He’ll assemble the building blocks, Lego pieces, trestles and tracks to make a new railroad bridge, having envisioned something that snakes around the living room and climbs the sofa. I don’t usually help him, because I’m not much of an engineer. I generally take charge of the reading and ice cream portion of the day. And generally, within 10 or 15 minutes, there’s some frustrated whining from the living room, and then, maybe half the time, a furious crash followed by him stomping off. Toss some crying in there, and you have a typical bridge-building experience in our household.
But here’s the thing: He almost always comes back to it. He handles failure and frustration the same way my husband does: a brief bout of anger, maybe some stomping and whining, and a kind of time-out on the project. For my husband, the time-out usually involves a little bit of ranting to me about how if he’d known anchors were needed for the shelf installation he could have got them yesterday at Lowe’s. But they almost always return to their projects, sometimes later that day, sometimes weeks later. Sometimes they both seem pissed, sure, but they don’t seem to take it personally. It’s just a project, not a reflection on them.
I wonder if I had girls if this would be different. I’ve always been an easy quitter, defeated by even small setbacks. Failure on a project feels like a reflection of my worth. If my bridge falls down, I must not have an engineering kind of mind, or I’m stupid. I so hate looking foolish that I probably wouldn’t ever try to build a bridge again (likely retreating to reading, which is hard to fail at).
This is, according to Rachel Simmons at Time, fairly typical of how failure breaks down along gender lines. Jessica Lahey’s new book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, provides solid evidence that children do better when mom and dad don’t step in and head off every broken train track or incorrect math problem. Paradoxically, failure is necessary for success; it helps kids develop grit.
And failure may be harder for girls to endure than boys, says Simmons. For one, “When girls make mistakes, they’re more likely to interpret the setback as a sign they lack ability—a factor much harder for girls to change. Boys, on the other hand, tend to attribute failure to more controllable circumstances.” Simmons notes that is due, in part, to the kind of feedback that girls get in school, feedback that tends to emphasize girls’ innate abilities (or inabilities) rather than specific behavioral corrections.
But Simmons cites another explanation that rings true to me: Girls are socialized to please others, so failure and disappointing a teacher or parents feels like more of a blow than it would for a boy. True success, for all of us, means tapping into intrinsic motivation rather than external rewards. It’s a topic that’s been studied extensively (I first came across it via the research of Alfie Kohn). Kids need to want to succeed at something for their own pleasure and satisfaction, not for praise or trophies.
Girls might find that the social imperative to be alert to others’ feedback, including praise or criticism, may muddy their sense of what they themselves really want. Boys, who don’t necessarily have to scan their environments constantly for feedback, might be freer to pursue their projects without a little voice of self-criticism butting in.
I do praise my son, but as the research on motivation instructs, I do my best to praise his efforts rather than his ability (“You worked really hard” rather than “You’re so smart”). Meanwhile, his inclination to carry out his building projects has made me question my own non-stick-to-it-iveness. I could stand to tap into my own intrinsic motivation, which I plan to do just as soon as I finish reading my book.