Maullika Sharma’s “Building Blocks” Column Made the White Swan Foundation’s Best of 2015 List

Your definition of success and failure impacts your child – do you know your definition?

By Maullika Sharma

Everyone wants to be a success. No one wants to be a failure. And understandably so. Success and failure, however, are terms meant to define events, not people. You are either successful at doing something, or achieving some milestone, or you failed at doing something or did not achieve some milestone. That does not imply that you are a complete success or a complete failure. There are other aspects of you that you may not be so successful at, or that you may not be such a failure at. The most successful person (if there can be such a term) may have a large bank balance, but may be a complete failure as a parent or a spouse. And a person who has been an absolute failure at business, may be an unbelievably good parent or an amazing friend.

So success and failure are terms used to describe how we did at a particular event in our life – not how we are in totality. But every so often we are unable to see the difference.

We often believe that we are a success, and our child must be a success. And the hint of failure in any small aspect of our life, or theirs, sends us into a tizzy. Or we believe that we have been a failure and therefore want to make sure that our children don’t end up as failures! If a child fails in an exam we call them failures; we project that they will remain failures for the rest of their lives. Whereas they may have just failed at an exam, and there may be several other aspects of life that they may have been successful at or successful in. We don’t allow ourselves to see or acknowledge that they may be great in sports, they may be wonderfully empathic human beings, they may be great artists and wonderful singers, they may be good orators or creative problem solvers, they may be honest and helpful, or that they may have wonderful people skills. We overlook all of this and brand them as a failure because they failed at an exam!

Similarly, if we lose our job, we brand ourselves as a failure, sometimes to the point of never being able to recover again. We interpret that failure at that particular job as a verdict on us, and our entire life, never allowing us to bounce back and think of ourselves in any other terms.

To accept our children in totality (and accept we must) with all their strengths and weaknesses, we need to understand success and failure as terms used to define events and not people. Which means that we need to look at ourselves also as people who have been successful in some aspects of our lives, and failures at others. We need to acknowledge and accept things that we failed at and we need to be comfortable talking about our failures. Can we accept our past failures, and take stock of what we learned from the experience? Are we comfortable with having failed in certain aspects and able to talk to our children about our failures? Can we make our failures, and how we dealt with them, an integral part of dinner-time conversations? Only then can we help our children accept failure as just another event in their lives – a learning opportunity that came their way – rather than something that fatally defines them in totality.

Some failure is inevitable – in our life, and in the life of our children. Equipping our children with life skills that will help use the failure to gain a deeper understanding of themselves, and gain new learnings from the situation, will be an invaluable gift that we can give them – far more valuable than the biggest bank balance that we may be slaving for. It will teach them the importance of resilience – of bouncing back in the face of adversity, and not letting adversity define them. And the sooner they learn this life lesson, the better off they will be.

But, children learn from what they see and experience, not from what we say or scream about. So that means they will learn life lessons around success and failure from how we, as parents, experience and deal with success and failure ourselves. They need to see us model behavior that takes failure in its stride. They need to see us learn from our failures. They need to see us fall down and then bounce back again – sometimes to newer heights, and sometimes to fall down again. They also need to see us succeed at some things, and take success in its stride. They need to see us experience joy in our successes.

In short, they need to see us experience failure and success, but most of all they need to see success and failure as temporary events in our life, not permanent life-defining states of being. In the words of John Wooden, “Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

Courage in the face of adversity, and humility in the face of prosperity, is what we need to model as parents. Only then will our children experience it from us, and only then will they learn to live it. And then, and only then, will we have helped them grow into resilient adults, ready to face all the challenges and joys, successes and failures, that life will throw in their path.

Never underestimate the power of our influence – negative and positive – on the lives of our children. Let’s strive to maximize the positive and minimize the negative.


Are you weighing your child down with the burden of your expectations?

By Maullika Sharma

I recently had a client who was in the process of leaving her marriage. I expected her to be distraught about the implications of that decision, and what it would mean for her, going forward. Instead what I found was someone distraught by the implications of that decision on her parents. They had had expectations of her, which she had not lived up to, in the past, as well. And now this! She was concerned about how they would face society. After all, she had let them down. Would they ever be able to recover from this? And would she ever be able to recover from having let them down? Those were her major concerns.

I have met several parents who have a clearly mapped out a future path for their children — every milestone is documented, or at least etched in their minds. Their children should simply abide, and follow that path, and they will benefit from a happy and successful future life. That is what they need to do. That is the only way.

However, children are here in the world to find their own purpose and create their own path, and then to go down that path with zeal, enthusiasm and drive. Our role as parents is to merely support them in this process of their search for self-identity, and their path. And we do this best by giving them the roots to grow and the wings to fly. According to Brian Tracy, an American TV host, “If you raise your children to feel that they can accomplish any goal or task they decide upon, you will have succeeded as a parent and you will have given your children the greatest of all blessings.”

As aware parents, we need to know that our children come into our lives to fulfill their own purpose. They are not here to fulfill our purpose. They are not here to give us a sense of validation. They are not here to carry on our family name or business, to achieve our unfulfilled dreams and aspirations, to provide an insurance policy for our old age, or to bring us glory. They are not here to fulfill our dreams, or think our thoughts, or become someone we think they should be. They are not our family “trophies” — to bring fame and glory to our family name. They are here to walk their own path and sculpt their own life. And as they cross the milestones of that process, we are allowed to feel proud of them.

So if we have pre-defined expectations of what our child should do, and who our child should become, it is imperative that we open up the windows of our mind and let the expectations go — not only because they are not based on any reality, but also because they can really make the environment toxic for our children, like my client who is still worrying about having let her parents down.

There has been a controversy raging in the press in the past about the Chinese style of parenting versus the American style. The Chinese style is more regimented and disciplinarian. It is loaded with the highest expectations of their children, in the path defined by their parents. Chinese children, for example, are not allowed to attend sleepovers, have play dates, be in school plays, complain about not being in school plays, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin; or not play the piano or violin. The American style, on the other hand, gives more space to a child’s individual needs, interests, desires, aspirations, feelings and self-esteem. While it is correct to say that the general level of academic performance of the Chinese children is higher, and therefore, we may conclude that the Chinese style is more effective in the long run, I believe that the Chinese system produces performers, not composers. And that, largely, holds true for the Indian system as well.

A quick Google search in the Classical Composers Database throws up just 20 Chinese composers but several pages of American composers. A question for us to think about is do we want our children to be performers (i.e. replicators, followers, doers, executers) of pre-written pieces, or do we want our children to be composers (leaders, designers, inventors, creators) of pieces that they are writing? While the Industrial Age attached a premium to diligence, execution, perfection, towing the line and other such qualities, the knowledge age that we are now living in (and that our children will definitely live in) attaches a premium to creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, abilities to learn on the job, solve problems, be team leaders, and be team players (in formal and informal, team structures), to communicate our ideas and opinions, the ‘can do’ attitude, the ability to be self-motivated and the ability to learn from failures, to name just a few. None of this gets tested by our current system of examinations, and none of these qualities get developed by our current system of education.

So if we expect our children to get a hundred per cent, and they live up to our expectation, they may fulfil our expectations, but still not be a success in life, and in the workplace. Do we want them to succeed in exams, or do we want them to succeed in life? It is a decision we need to make as parents, because the paths to both may be completely different. Unfortunately, many parents assume that success in exams automatically implies success in life. Success in exams only opens a few doors. Success in life, on the other hand, is a totally different ball game, often having nothing to do with success in exams.

Does that mean that parents should not have any expectations? No, far from it. Children are known to try and live up to parental expectations, and therefore, having some expectations will spur them on to push themselves to achieve greater heights. It will push them to get out of their comfort zone, try out new things and take on new challenges.

All it means is that the expectations should not be about marks, performance and abiding by rigid social norms above all else.

Our expectations should be around having our children put in their best effort, in whatever area they choose; about them learning to the best of their ability; about them living by values that we model to help our children believe in them; about our children pushing the boundaries and limits of their capabilities to ensure they achieve their potential; about them being socially well-adjusted; about believing in themselves; and, about having their own dreams and aspirations, as different from ours.

So what CAN we give our children? Our knowledge and belief that who they really are is valuable and important! And an honest, authentic, safe and secure environment where they can grow, without fear of rejection or non-acceptance.

And, what can we expect in return as parents? In the words of Sharon Goodman, we should expect nothing less than “a magnificent adventure as we guide our children to know who they really are!”

Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore.