Raising Lifelong Learners
Colleen Kessler, M.Ed.
“Differently-wired kids face an unrealistic view of what failure is from an early age and get their self-worth tied up in that perception. They fear failure intensely.”
Developing a Healthy Mindset About Failure
You’re an incredible parent who has chosen to homeschool your kids. But some days, especially when you are raising differently-wired kiddos, it likely feels as if it would be easier to let someone else handle the heavy lifting for a bit. You want your children to excel. You want them to strive for excellence and to feel accomplished by a job well-done. Whether it’s their education, music lessons, dance, performance, or any other skill they’re pursuing, you teach your kids to aim high and master new things from an early age.

Gifted, twice-exceptional, and otherwise neurodiverse children know this expectation well. In fact, they often set exceptionally high standards for themselves. After all, striving for perfection in the sense of learning to excel can be healthy and admirable, right?

Well yes, but when reaching for perfection turns compulsive, it becomes an unhealthy struggle. This type of pervasive perfectionism can become debilitating to a neurodiverse child. Neurodiverse perfectionists can be unsatisfied with their performance on anything—even when they’ve done beautifully.

I remember when my son, now twenty, was in middle school and began playing the flute. When he went in for his first band lesson to try out and test different band instruments to see what he was most suited to play, he was told that he had a natural ability and could play whatever he wished. He chose to play the flute because he’d read that it was one of the most difficult to master.

At first, he practiced well and often, but as time went on and the pieces became more challenging, he pulled back. He pulled back because he was afraid to fail. The toughest thing about being told you’re a natural at something—and being great from the start—is that once it gets hard, you start to feel like you’re not actually as good (or worthy) as everyone thought you were. With every failed note, my son felt increasingly devastated and angry.

Differently-wired kids face an unrealistic view of what failure is from an early age and get their self-worth tied up in that perception. They fear failure intensely.

This unhealthy form of perfectionism is very different from a motivation for excellence. The dissimilarity keeps differently-wired perfectionists from ever completely feeling good enough about themselves. It keeps kids from taking risks. They become so afraid of failure that they avoid work, play, and new experiences altogether.

I can still be this way as a perfectionistic, twice-exceptional adult. I get anxious and then procrastinate on tasks or projects I have coming up because I’m afraid I won’t be able to meet my own high standards. Before a speaking event, I often get stuck and don’t pull my talks, slides, and handouts together until the last minute. It’s not because I don’t know the topics inside and out—I live the topics of giftedness, anxiety, perfectionism, and neurodiversity in homeschooling and parenting daily!

I just don’t want to let my audience down. I’m headachy and nauseous when I think about those parents in the audience walking away without having their needs met. I love speaking. I love writing. I’ve done both for decades and get myself worked up each and every time because I care so much about creating the perfect experience for others.

I know exactly how my son feels.

daughter talking to mother on bed
I know how your differently-wired perfectionist feels.
Unhealthy perfectionism and fear of failure affects children physically, emotionally, and intellectually. It also affects their family and friends. Perfectionists may subtly cause others to feel down about themselves by pointing out their flaws and mistakes to make themselves feel better.

So, as parents who want our differently-wired children to overcome their fear of failure and excel, without becoming unhealthy in their quest for perfection, how do we help?

Let them hear about your mistakes.
Kids who struggle with an unhealthy fear of failure often think others do things perfectly. Talk to them about your failures and the lessons you’ve learned from them.

When I taught gifted children in the public schools, I started the year by going into all of the third grade classrooms and reading excerpts from the book Mistakes That Worked by Charlotte Foltz Jones. The book profiles inventions that happened because someone failed. The Frisbee, Toll House chocolate chip cookies, and Post-It Notes are some of the amazing things discussed in that book. Sometimes the best learning happens from the biggest failures. (Check out our Great Books column for more about Mistakes That Worked!)

Teach them to practice… and to lose.
Many things come easily to gifted kids, so by the time they find something that’s hard, they give up rather than fail. Find something they’ll have to work at—an art class, horseback riding, stop motion animation—and sign them up. Practice with them between sessions. Teach them that great things come through hard work.

Then, teach your kids to lose. Play games with them, starting with games of chance and moving onto skill-based games. Celebrate gracious losing.

Focus on the process, not the product.
Too often, perfectionistic kids have an idea of what something should look like when it’s done. Their picture may or may not match up with reality. Throughout the process of their work, ask them questions and offer positive feedback. When they’re done, ask questions. “What made you use that color?” “How did you come up with this idea in the first place?”
Explain your expectations and stick with them.
Differently-wired kids can be literal and need to know up front what it means to be done with a project. What does a great journal entry look like? How do we measure success on the ball field? What should flute practice include? Tell your literal-minded kiddos what to expect and tell them to stop when they get to that point. Use a time limit if necessary.
grass field
Be silly sometimes.
Differently-wired children can be so hard on themselves. Take time to laugh with each other—especially when mistakes are made. Practicing how to take falls, trying flips on the trampoline, and watching silly shows on television all help draw families closer together and remind kids to enjoy moments… and that everyone fails.
Talk about your own struggles.
If you’re a perfectionist like I am, talk to your kids about it. I just chatted over coffee with my daughter about how I struggle when I have too many things on my plate. I get overwhelmed, think I can’t do it all as well as I should be able to, and just want to give up altogether. When she knows that I struggle with paralyzing perfectionism and a fear of failure too, she doesn’t feel so alone.
Break routines from time to time.
Like all children, the perfectionist craves routine. Help your differently-wired children see that the occasional break from routine is okay. If you’re in a hurry to be somewhere, model that it’s okay to let some chores go until later. If you always let your kiddos read before bed, but you got home late, have them go to bed without reading from time to time. Teach them that routines and structures are meant to help us focus our days, but we shouldn’t become slaves to them.
Make and progress toward goals.
Help your children see the bigger picture and realize that mistakes and trip-ups are part of the journey. Start by having them think about things they want to achieve and break it down for them. For example, if your son wants to write and self-publish a book, have him first set the small goal of outlining his story. Then, have him set and meet the goal of writing the first chapter. Keep going like this in small intervals, helping your child see that there are many steps to ultimate goals, and nobody gets there right away.
Enjoy a state of rest.
Many kids get more worked up when they overextend themselves. Make sure that everyone is well-rested and takes good care of their physical needs. Set aside time to eat together as a family and reconnect. Include quiet downtime in your day for kids and adults of all ages—we all need downtime. When we’re rested, we’re more likely to take healthy risks and try new things.
Join me in The Learners Lab!
We are a community of parents with differently-wired kids—children and teens who are empathetic, sensitive, brilliant, intensely driven, ambitious, always moving, creative, and ready to take on the world. But they aren’t always easy. They need a different approach. In The Learner’s Lab, you’ll find both the resources and the support you need to help your children succeed and feel more connected as a family.
Be a role model for healthy excellence.
Take pride in your work and don’t hide your mistakes or criticize yourself aloud. Congratulate yourself when you’ve done a good job, and let your children know that your own accomplishments give you satisfaction. Don’t overwork. You, too, need to have some fun and relaxation.

Remember, if your children’s fear of failure is getting in the way of normal activities and preventing them from getting involved in new ones, or if your children show symptoms of anxiety related to perfectionism like stomachaches, headaches, or eating disorders, you may want to get professional psychological help for them and your family. Seeing a psychologist or a family counselor can help give you the tools to get your kiddos and yourself back on track.

The drive to work toward excellence in all things they do is a characteristic we want to cultivate and encourage in our children. We just need to make sure our differently-wired kiddos continue to have a healthy view of failure and what it means to work toward goals well while learning from mistakes.
Colleen Kessler headshot

olleen Kessler believes that you are the absolute best teacher there is for your amazing child. The author of more than a dozen books, award-winning educator, educational consultant, and passionate advocate for the needs of differently-wired kids, Colleen has a B.S. in elementary education, an M.Ed. in gifted studies, and is the founder of the popular podcast and website Raising Lifelong Learners and The Learner’s Lab, a membership community for quirky and creative families. Her newest book, Raising Resilient Sons: A Boy Mom’s Guide to Building a Strong, Confident, and Emotionally Intelligent Family can be found anywhere books are sold.

Colleen lives in Northeast Ohio with her reading specialist husband, four delightfully differently-wired kiddos, pug, border collie, and an ever-changing assortment of small animals and insects.