Eight Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success

What to Do and What to Say to Turn "Failures" into Character-Building Moments

About the Book

Turn common adolescent missteps, from relationship blunders to rebellions that backfire, into character-building moments—by the author of Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen.

“This clear-eyed, practical, fun-to-read guide is an essential read for every parent.”—Lisa Damour, PhD, New York Times bestselling author of Untangled, Under Pressure, and The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Every child messes up, sometimes in ways that seem sure to wreck their futures: a bad report card, poor sportsmanship, underaged drinking. These are tough moments for parent and child alike, often complicated by the fear that the misstep is also an indictment of our parenting. But what each of these “fails” has in common for our kids is the precious silver lining of a chance for character building and developing more grit—if we help them process their mistake well.

An invaluable playbook for anxious parents everywhere, Eight Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success offers specific and unexpected advice about what to say, what not to say, and what to do to help children in eight categories of tense situations. Distilled from Michelle Icard’s decades of experience working with tweens, teenagers, and families, it also introduces her signature three-step approach to any kind of failure:

Contain: Affirm your child, gather the facts, and control the narrative.
Resolve: Explain what went wrong, define clear consequences, teach them to apologize well, and develop a plan to rebuild trust. 
Evolve: Reaffirm and re-expand their rights, and establish rewards for good behaviors. 

With empathy, insight, and optimism, Michelle Icard’s advice ensures that a child’s mistake or rebellion doesn’t become the headline of their childhood, but instead becomes a launch pad to a better future.
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Praise for Eight Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success

“Michelle Icard is a gift to every parent being bounced around by the waves of advice and expertise. The setbacks are coming. So are the overreactions and regrets. Hold this book close. Refer to it often. Share with your partner. This is terra firma.”—Kelly Corrigan, bestselling author of The Middle Place and Tell Me More, host of the Kelly Corrigan Wonders podcast, and host of the PBS show, Tell Me More

“Michelle Icard has written the playbook parents need to turn the inevitable challenges that come with growing up into opportunities for tremendous growth and maturation. This clear-eyed, practical, fun-to-read guide is an essential read for every parent.”—Lisa Damour, PhD, New York Times bestselling author of Untangled, Under Pressure, and The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

“If you’ve ever worried about your kids' mistakes, drop everything and read Eight Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success. It's a smart, reassuring, and incredibly informative guide that will help parents recognize the value of failure and how to handle it.”—Melinda Wenner Moyer, author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes

“Michelle Icard is the master of walking parents and caregivers through the trials of adolescence through relatable examples, organic, easy-to-follow advice, and a tone and sense of humor that takes the alarm out of these moments, and replaces it with empowerment, connection and joy.”—Dr. John Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety

“Too many of today’s loving, intelligent, devoted parents are both afraid of and afraid for their children. Michelle Icard to the rescue! With a candid and often light-hearted touch she offers deep insight and up-to-the-minute advice on a dazzling range of topics. I especially appreciate that she’s devised a ‘child’s bill of rights’ that includes the right to make mistakes and, therefore, have the opportunity to learn from them.”—Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
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Eight Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success

Chapter One

Understanding Failure and How It Functions

You, I, and every other reader bring to this book a different take on what it means to fail and what it means to succeed. Difference in perspective is surely a good thing because we need all kinds of ambition, goals, and talent to make the world we live in interesting, industrious, safe, and innovative. But we need to reframe failure and success, at least for this book to make sense; we can’t have a meaningful conversation about failure and success unless we wrangle the concepts down to a certain degree.

Speaking of reframing failure, if you skipped the intro and jumped straight into chapter 1, I don’t want you to miss one important point on wording. This book’s title refers to setbacks, which is how I’d categorize childhood struggles once we have the hindsight to learn from them. In the thick of it, when your child is experiencing a breakdown of communication, trust, confidence, or relationships, it feels like a failure. In this chapter, we’ll do a deep dive into the importance of childhood failure in relationship to adult success.

Success, as I see it, has less to do with a young person meeting measurable, enviable outcomes and more to do with a child becoming personally fulfilled, developing competency in an area of interest, and finding a community in which to participate.

Success, as I see it, has less to do with a young person meeting measurable, enviable outcomes and more to do with a child becoming personally fulfilled, developing competency in an area of interest, and finding a community in which to participate.

Of course, this is highly subjective, meaning what I find personally fulfilling you might not—unless you’re also weirdly into binge-watching TV shows, then buying wigs and dressing up as your favorite characters for your tiny Instagram following? Probably not, but that’s my point. Societally, our definition of success has become way too narrow, and the pressure on parents to mold “perfect kids” begins mounting from day one.

I bet one of the first things someone asked when they met your new baby was, “How are they sleeping?” It’s not a rude question, per se, and I know for sure I asked many new parents the same thing. Recently, though, Kristin Daley, PhD, a psychologist who served as chair of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, pointed out how stressful this question can be. It signals to new moms and dads that the parent community is ready to assess them right out of the gate.

Our own mothers likely never asked each other this question because (a) who cares? (b) they could probably guess the answer—not great, Gladys!—and (c) books, podcasts, and Facebook groups weren’t needling our parents about the urgency of sleep training. Asking about sleep has become one of our first ways of gauging parental proficiency. And from there the questions never stop. Is she walking yet? Any teeth? What reading level is he on now? What height percentile? Boyfriend yet? Girlfriend yet? Is he moving up to a travel league for sports? Is she taking the advanced or honors classes next year? What colleges are they applying to?

When a parent can’t answer success-related questions with enthusiasm, it can make them feel anywhere from alienated to annoyed to angry. Spend some time observing online parent communities, and you will notice a desperation for understanding and acceptance from parents whose kids aren’t on the same predictable path toward “success.” They don’t know how to answer these questions without feeling as if they were disappointing people. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t take an interest in your friends’ children, but questions aimed at assessing their success might be better replaced with curiosity about feelings and interests, either the child’s or the parent’s.

If parents are feeling alienated, annoyed, and angry, imagine how children are processing things. Our kids know their success is being monitored and measured nonstop by both their peers and the adults in their lives, and it’s unequivocally hurting them. The American Psychological Association reported a rise in perfectionism among college students, finding that parents who held their children to high standards caused their children to develop perfectionist tendencies resulting in depression, anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders, even more so than parents who expressed criticism of their children. When parental expectations feel hard to meet, young adults are far more likely to experience what’s known as “socially prescribed perfectionism,” or the sense that other people, and even society as a whole, require them to be perfect.

To be clear, having expectations for our kids is natural. I expect my children to be polite when meeting someone new, for example. But having standards our children can’t meet, or that they must suffer to meet, is not only cruel but futile. You are no longer the parent in the swimming pool taking another step back each time your gasping child almost reaches your outstretched hands. Setting benchmarks for success just beyond our adolescents’ reach doesn’t encourage them to pull harder. It causes them to sink.

Parents are yearning for a new way to think about success, and therefore failure. We’re ready to throw off the impossible burden of raising perfect kids and find relief in a community that accepts failure as not just part of being a human but a way of becoming an even nicer, smarter, happier, and more inclusive one.

We live in an era when all our decisions feel increasingly public, thanks in large part to our ability to share all aspects of our lives online: what we’re eating, how we voted, where we vacationed, whether we donated, whom we invited, when we last exercised. The pressure to please and impress our families, neighbors, followers, friends, and frenemies alike is crippling.

A copy-and-paste post that regularly goes around social media says this:

A big shout out to all the kids who didn’t win an award, make honor roll, and barely made it through the school year. A big hug to the moms, dads, grandparents, caregivers, and foster parents that stuck by them as they maneuvered the school year.

To the kids that didn’t get invited to the prom, didn’t get a scholarship to college, and perhaps have to go straight to work out of high school. . . . ​you are still worthy of a pat on the back and a Facebook post with people talking about how amazing you are.

Some kids have to work twice as hard as other students just to get a C. Their achievements deserve recognition.

Don’t forget those kids.

Kindness, creativity, and generosity. . . . ​those attributes sadly don’t get the accolades they deserve.

The original post above was written by the educator Dana Chavis, and I see it shared widely, often with tweaks or new takes, and parents commenting in ALL CAPS gratitude for the message that success isn’t one size fits all.

If you’re feeling antsy because your child isn’t churning out post-worthy accolades left and right (or maybe they are and they’re still bugging the crud out of you at home with snark, disorganization, lethargy, and ungratefulness), don’t waste another minute worrying what that means for their future or yours. This book will bring you peace of mind that your child isn’t the only one derailing from the fantasy you once envisioned. In turn, it will unburden your child from the constraints of those expectations and allow them to find success in new and meaningful ways. Once you’ve realized why not being perfect is so key to their future success, you’ll learn the language you need to work through whatever circumstances your child faces as a team so that you can both emerge stronger, content, and more connected on the other side.

About the Author

Michelle Icard
Michelle Icard has written for the Today show parenting team, NBC News Learn, CNN Science and Wellness, and the Washington Post. The author of Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen and Middle School Makeover, she has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Redbook, Time, and People. Her leadership curriculum for middle schoolers, Athena’s Path and Hero’s Pursuit, have been implemented at schools and summer camps across the United States. Michelle has two young adult children who mostly live elsewhere these days, which leaves lots of time for practicing yoga, walking her dogs, binging shows, and puzzling (crossword and jigsaw) with her husband in Charlotte, North Carolina. More by Michelle Icard
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