Sunday, April 5, 2009

How do children cope with disappointment?

Princess went to a gym competition on Sunday. She didn't win anything. She was all storm clouds and winter despite the sun being most dazzling outside. Not winning is ok, I told her. "Not after all the hours I put in," she says. "You don't know what it feels like, it makes you feel like you are not worth anything!"

I felt sad seeing all her internal turmoil. I tried to recall how I used to cope as a child. I was never a top student. Friends cried when they got 80% in their tests. I laughed out of sheer happiness, for getting 55%, especially in Math. I had my strenghts, but math was not one of them. I can't remember sheer disappointment except for when I missed out on promotions every year for 5 consecutive years at the NSTP, where I used to work. Why not? I was a star reporter, with many good scoops. After a while, I left and found success elsewhere. And oh, yes, there were two other disappointments in my life I will always remember -- not being chosen to perform in a dance at Chinese school, and not making it to the badminton team!

I told Princess that wining is not everything. Needless to say, my words might as well been thrown out as garbage. There were more tears about how just having something to show for all the hard hours she put into gym would have been nice. It went on for a while. Time will heal this disappointment. I am sure it will.

It is hard. Dealing with non-success. But children need to learn that success is not defined by medals or certificates. Yes, these external forms of gratuity are all welcomed as endorsement of what one has done right. Sometimes a little failure can help a child feel empathy for those who have never won a medal or any certificate. Sometimes it is good for a child to know there will always be someone better prepared, or luckier on that day.

I want Princess to succeed. But how can or should I help define for her "success" that is not measured by "goldstars" in school or "Distinctions" or "Excellent" or cups and medals? I don't really have the answers. All I could say was enjoy the experience of exercising but that went whoosh!

Princess is already highly successful by my definition. Obviouly my standards are much lower than her own. She aims high and demands great things of herself -- in sports, in school. Me? I just want her to stay happy and healthy.

If you have interesting stories to share about how you have helped your child cope with not succeedin, share your tale?


  1. Tell her that she is already a star and no matter what the others get eg medals and prizes pale in comparison to what she has achieved......... always tell my 'goose' at home that she should be more like Princess........... try your best n dont give up..... :)


  2. Looks like your princess is a high-achiever and thats good too. She will have to keep on trying and dont give up because one day the medals will go her way. Steve has always been telling his 'boo' he doesnt want him to give up, to keep trying, do his best and to have fun while at it.

    The part of not winning now is an experience and when wining the medal will also be an experience.

  3. Thanks folks for your encouraging words for Princess. It took a while to get over her disappointment but she is determined to attend the holiday gym programme to improve!

    I agree that part of the experience is coping with defeat and not victory -- it expands a child's range of emotions!

  4. This problem may stem from all the certificates and prizes the kids get when they are in primary school - mostly earned for simply turning up.

    Then they leave primary school and the certificates and mindless praise don't arrive. But already their minds have been programmed to believe that they only achieve if they win.

    Add to this is parents - in front of their kids - going on and on and on about how wonderful, beautiful, smart blah, blah, blah their kids are.

    As the child grows up they realise that they aren't the best artist, athlete or brain in the school, the parents continue to rave about their kids, the kids stop listening to the praise as they realise it all means nothing.

    Praise/rewards should not be their motivation for action.

    Princess however doesn’t seem to want our praise, she just wants to win for herself – is this self motivation?

  5. Definitely - Princess is more motivated than either her dad or me. How else can you explain hours of practising at home on her beam routine, her other routines? How else can you explain turning up for 4.5 hours of gym training? Kudos to her...

    I agree all these praises mean nothing...but kids need some positive reinforcement. Other times we need to be brutal and honest. Welcome to the real worl I would say!


Hi, I welcome your say on the matter!