My daughter wasn’t crying because she lost the spelling bee. She was crying because she got knocked out in the second round. She’s smart. That’s her thing. So missing the word tofu embarrassed her. To make it worse, she knew every word after that.
The tears started just as I was tucking her into bed. “I didn’t want to win the whole thing,” she said, “I just didn’t want to miss one so early.” What was I supposed to say? Better luck next time? Just keep trying? No one likes tofu?
We spend so much time as parents preparing our kids for success that sometimes we do a poor job of preparing them for failure. We help them with homework, drive them to soccer practice and even arrange play dates to help them thrive relationally.
Yet, no matter how much we set up our kids to win, sometimes they are going to lose. That’s just life in a fallen world. Despite their best effort, they will sometimes fail tests, get clobbered in soccer games and struggle to make friends.
How should we react in moments like this? How can we help them deal with disappointment while also preparing them to handle failure as adults?
Thankfully, the night of the spelling bee, God led the conversation exactly where it needed to go, and in the process, I discovered three things I will repeat every time my kids are dealing with failure.
Our kids need to know that we see their pain, and we care. When my daughters are hurting, my first instinct is to fix it. I want to give them advice, correct them or coach them how to do better next time. However, in moments like these, I’m learning that the first thing they need is kindness. So when I didn’t know what to say, I just hugged my daughter and told her, “I know it’s hard and I’m sorry.”
- Affirm their identity.
Kids need to know that their value isn’t based on their performance. They are loved because they are children of God. Failure messes with our identity because we all tend to build our self-image around activities that give us affirmation.
That’s why it’s twice as hard when the smart kid gets knocked out of the spelling bee, or the athlete loses a game. A big part of our identity is based on areas of life where we excel.
That night, I reminded my daughter that she is a child of the king, adored by her Dad in heaven and her dad on earth and no spelling bee could change that. I told her that her worth doesn’t come from what she does, but whose she is. She is a daughter of God.
- Talk about kingdom.
Our kids need to discover a redemptive view of suffering in the small things to prepare them to navigate more challenging struggles in life. That’s why we need to point them back to the Bible in small moments like these.
Earlier that day, my daughter and I had been talking about Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding” (NLT). It had just popped into my head, and I felt prompted to share it with her. At the time I had no idea why.
When the spelling bee drama unfolded, however, I had a pretty good idea what God was up to. I mentioned the proverb again and suggested, “Maybe this is an opportunity to trust God.”
Later she confessed, “As soon as you read that verse to me, I knew it was about the spelling bee. I knew it was about me trusting God.”
I reminded her that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). That means sometimes He says no to a desire of our heart because He has a better yes waiting for us in the future. It means sometimes He lets us go through hardship so we can comfort others with the comfort we have received (2 Corinthians 1:4). It means that even bad things that happen can give us an opportunity to minister to others and advance the gospel (Phil 1:12).
And that, of course, is the ultimate win.
By reframing my daughter’s loss with a kingdom perspective, God helped me remind her that her life is part of a bigger story and that her purpose goes far beyond winning a spelling bee. At the end of the night, it was that part of conversation that made the biggest difference. She finally had peace about the situation, and soon afterwards, drifted off to sleep.
When it comes right down to it, God’s definition of winning and losing is very different than ours. After all, we follow a Savior who died on a cross. The more we can help our kids see their failures and frustrations from His point of view, the more we can guarantee they will continually experience the only victory that counts.