U.S. teens lose lucrative career opportunities because they dislike risk-taking and fear failure — and parents might be contributing to those wimpy attitudes. Of parents surveyed by the American Society for Quality, 81 percent said they were uncomfortable if their child did not perform well in sports, extracurricular activities or social situations. Of those parents, 73 percent said they feel uncomfortable when their child gets bad grades.
While 95 percent of teens agree that risk-taking is required for innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — careers, 46 percent say they are afraid to fail or uneasy taking risks to solve problems, according to the survey. But failure — coupled with trying again — is a pivotal problem-solving skill necessary to success in STEM fields, the report said.
"If one does not take risks, they risk not solving the problem," said Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer, a professional engineer involved in the study. "As educators, professionals and leaders we need to reinforce to teens that every failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. Teaching teens that it is OK to take risks and sometimes fail will build their confidence and ultimately their knowledge base of science, technology, engineering and math," she said.
The study showed that fear of failing is highest among girls. Fifty-eight percent of girls say they feel afraid when facing a difficult problem in school. In comparison, only 34 percent of boys feel afraid when asked to solve challenging schoolwork.
A 2005 Gallup poll found that fear of failure ranked fourth among the top ten fears for American teens, behind terrorist attacks, spiders and death, in that order. Teens surveyed placed fear of failure ahead of war, heights, crime and violence, being alone, the future and nuclear war — their other biggest fears.
Being labeled a loser holds tremendous stigma in American popular culture, and parents compound that message if they connect their own love and approval with childrens’ ability to get good grades or become popular, wrote psychologist Jim Taylor for Disney’s Family.com blog. Consequently, many children avoid activities in which they fear failure.
“If children don't participate, they're safe from failure,” Taylor wrote. “Injury, illness, damaged equipment, forgotten or lost materials, apparent lack of interest or motivation or just plain refusal to take part are common ways in which children can avoid failure and maintain their personal and social esteem.”
Children also avoid the appearance of failure by making excuses when they don’t do well, such as by blaming teachers for their poor school performance. But failure is an inevitable and essential part of life, Taylor wrote. It teaches life skills, such as commitment, patience, determination, decision-making and problem-solving.
Coincidentally, all of those traits come in handy when studying or working in STEM fields.
Taylor suggests that parents can protect children from bad cultural attitudes about failure by defining failure in ways that free them “to strive for success without reservation, to explore, take risks and vigorously pursue their dreams.” It’s sound advice when pursuing tough subjects at school, and for life in general. Taylor’s definitions include:
- Failure is not living in accordance with values. When children cheat, lie or don't take responsibility for themselves, then they fail.
- When children buy into popular culture's definition of success, for example, being overly concerned with popularity or appearance, then they fail.
- Failure involves children not giving their best effort, making poor decisions and not doing what is in their best interest.
- When children look for the easy way out, are influenced by peer pressure and act in ways that can hurt them, then they fail.
- Failure also means treating others poorly and not giving back to their families, communities and the world as a whole. When children are selfish, uncaring and disrespectful of the world in which they live, then they fail.