Here’s what we learn from psychology: What’s most reliably associated with success are prior experiences with success, not with failure. Although there are exceptions, the most likely consequence of having failed at something is that a child will come to see himself as lacking competence. And the result of that belief is apt to be more failure. All else being equal, a student who gets a zero is far more likely to give up (and perhaps act up) than to try harder.
We may wish that a child who can’t seem to get on base, or spit out a list of facts from memory during a test, or coax anything more than a hideous shriek from his violin will react by squaring his shoulders, reciting the mantra of The Little Engine That Could, and redoubling his efforts until, gosh darn it, he turns things around. But wishing doesn’t make it true. That turn of events remains the exception rather than the rule. It’s true that kids learn from failure, but what they’re likely to learn is that they’re failures.
In a typical experiment, children are asked to solve problems that are rigged to ensure failure. After that, they’re asked to solve problems that are clearly within their capabilities. What happens? Even the latter problems now tend to paralyze them because a spiral of failure has been set into motion. This doesn’t happen in every case, of course, but for at least half a century researchers have been documenting the same basic effect with children of various ages.
Failure often proves damaging in part, as Deborah Stipek of Stanford University explains, because it changes children’s understanding of why they succeed and why they fail. Specifically, those who have learned to see themselves as failures are “more likely to attribute success [when it does happen] to external causes, and [to attribute] failure to a lack of ability” as compared to “children who have a history of good performance.” A kid who doesn’t do well assumes that if he does succeed, he must have just gotten lucky—or that the task was easy. And he assumes that if he fails again, which he regards as more likely, it’s because he doesn’t have what it takes: intelligence, athletic ability, musical talent, whatever.
This quickly turns into a vicious circle because attributing results to causes outside of one’s control makes people feel even more helpless, even less likely to do well in the future. The more they fail, the more they construct an image of themselves—and a theory about the results—that leads to still more failure.
And it’s not just achievement that suffers. Those who fail also tend to lose interest in whatever they’re doing (say, learning), and they come to prefer easier tasks. Both of these outcomes make perfect sense: It’s hard for a child to stay excited about something she has reason to think she can’t do well, and it’s even harder for her to welcome a more difficult version of whatever she was doing. In fact, failure often leads kids to engage in something that psychologists call “self-handicapping”: They deliberately make less of an effort in order to create an excuse for not succeeding. This lets them preserve the idea that they have high aptitude. They’re able to tell themselves that if they had tried, they might have done much better.