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Let your child fail now to help them succeed in the future, expert tells Hong Kong parents

Letting your children experience failure will help them develop the qualities needed to succeed as adults, health experts say

Hazel Parry
Illustration: Corbis
Failure is a word Dr Kenneth Ginsburg hates using. "It is such a strong word. It sounds so final," he says. But as much as he dislikes the word and the negative connotations it carries, Ginsburg believes that, as experiences go, failure can be pretty positive for teenagers and one which parents shouldn't fear.

In fact, he believes it's necessary, and when parents try to prevent their children from failing, they are depriving them of an experience which will make them stronger and better able to face the challenges of their teen and adult years.

"Failure is actually just a misstep; it gives you the opportunity to learn to recover and to build tenacity," he says.

"If you don't learn how to recover in childhood, then when you fail as an adult you are going to fall apart."

This is why, says Ginsburg, parents should resist the temptation to step in and try to turn every potential failure into success for their children.

"You can't have someone hovering over a child saying, 'No child of mine will get these grades.' That will not foster tenacity. It's going to make that child feel oppressed, like they are performing for someone else."


Ginsburg knows what he is talking about - he spent two decades researching how to help children build resilience so they can find their own solutions to life's problems.

As a paediatrician specialising in adolescent medicine at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, he has given talks all over the world on this subject, and is the author of , published by The American Academy of Paediatrics.

Speaking by phone from the US ahead of his first visit to Hong Kong for a series of talks next week, Ginsburg explains that building resilience means equipping teens with the skills to tackle challenges that life throws their way.

That means showing them how to understand stress and develop coping strategies, helping them recognise what they are good at and what they can't do or change, and accepting and learning from the failures.


"There are some people who only define resilience in terms of recovery from difficult circumstance," he says. "But I see resilience as something you develop in a human being that will help them bounce through adversity and also prepare them to thrive during good times.


Without resilience, teens may turn to negative coping methods such as alcohol or drugs, resort to self-harming, or become depressed.

"Stress is something people experience from a variety of different sources. It is a subjective experience. Recovery is about dealing with stress and, on some level, thriving; it's about how you interpret stress," he says.

Academic stress has undoubtedly increased in modern society and it's creating a lot of problems for well-resourced children from middle-class families, even getting in the way of achievement.


Of course, Hong Kong is notorious for its academic pressure, with high expectations from parents, schools, along with relationship problems, often leading to depression, or even suicide, in teens.

Official statistics show suicides in the 15-to-24 age group in Hong Kong has been growing steadily and more quickly than the general rate. In 2011, there were 84 suicides among the 15-to-24 age group. In 2012, the number rose to 107, an increase of almost 30 per cent.

One recent study found 17 per cent of 500 students felt depressed, says Dr Anisha Abraham, honorary associate professor in the department of paediatrics at the Chinese University.


In another study of about 400 students, a third said they were not happy, were not having fun, or did not feel good about things. Alarmingly, 7 per cent said they had attempted suicide.

"The fact that 7 per cent had attempted suicide means we are really failing to give these students the support they need and help to build internal resilience," says Abraham, who specialises in adolescent health. "They are doing something to harm themselves because they don't know what else to do.

"Those who have resilience can handle that stress. When they don't have it, it can lead to other complications. I have seen it come out as depression, body image related issues and internet addiction. I have certainly seen a lot more young people engage in cutting."

Ginsburg believes it is the responsibility of both parents and educators to help children build resilience. Parents can do their bit by being supportive and loving, helping to build their children's confidence and making them feel they have a contribution to make. They can also show by example their own healthy coping strategies.

Reducing stress mainly involves common sense. "It is not rocket science, but a 14-year-old doesn't know it," he says.

So elements can be incorporated into the curriculum to teach teenagers how to manage stress, be it in science or health class.

Ultimately, Ginsburg recommends parents look beyond the school years and think about the successful 35-year-old person they would like their child to become - someone who finds meaning in life.

"We would want them [at age 35] to be hard working, to have tenacity, to have collaborative skills and to be able to take constructive criticism," he says.

When considering a 17-year-old, we tend to look at academic achievement and where he or she will end up after high school. But that puts so much pressure on teenagers, we may undermine the qualities they need to be happy and successful adults, Ginsburg says.

We need to change our mindsets and look to the future: "We don't need people who perform for numbers - we need people who will be creative and innovative."

To illustrate his point, Ginsburg gives an example of child who worries about getting B+ because they see it as failure.

"What happens then is they will do whatever they can to avoid the B+ and get the A. In most cases that means avoiding being creative or thinking outside of the box," he says.

"Yes, you might get an A and you might do well in secondary school, but you are not going to do well as a 35-year-old because you have stifled your creativity.

"The great ideas in life don't begin with an A grade - they begin with someone . . . willing to think differently," he says. "These are the people who will go on to rock the world."

Dr Kenneth Ginsburg will speak at Hong Kong International School on Apr 14 as part of the Charles W Dull Visiting Scholar Series. He will also address a professional seminar hosted by the Hong Kong Paediatrics Society: "Resilience in Action", Apr 13, 2pm, Multi-function Room, G/F, D Block, Queen Elizabeth Hospital. To register, [email protected], or call: 25783833
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: top to the