Teaching Our Children to Fail Well
Last year both of my children came home with test papers labeled with a 67 in bold red ink. The competitive perfectionist inside me slipped quietly into panic mode, no, scratch that, she ran screaming into panic mode. Why in this world would intelligent children who have shown themselves to be capable of all As suddenly bring home this?
Let me back up to say last school year was a bit of a mess. Six weeks into the school year we sold our house and moved in with my parents for what was supposed to be a month. Five months later we finally moved into our new house, but by then we were already past Spring Break. We lived in Stressville for five months. Our kids seemed to handle it really well, but I would be crazy to think it didn’t affect them at least a little.
Now back to the story. Luckily, my children did not bring these grades home at the same time. I don’t think I could have handled that. However, when I looked at that first paper with the big red D on it, I also held four other papers with big red 100s.
After looking over the paper and my child’s answers, I realized my child understood the information they just didn’t pay close enough attention to detail to get it right this time. Which made the next step a little easier. I gave them a pass. The conversation (okay, speech, very little was required from the child except for a ‘yes ma’am I understand’) went like this: “I’m giving you a pass this time. You only get one pass. More grades like this mean discipline and extra work. If you bring home a report card grade like this, you will lose privileges. We all make mistakes and have bad days. And we all bomb a test or a project sometimes. It happens. Just don’t let it happen too often.”
I’ll be honest, I surprised myself. I’ve had to remind myself more times than I care to admit that my children aren’t perfect because they have my imperfect genes messing up their chances at perfection. And I can’t expect perfection from them when I can’t offer it myself.
Unfortunately we’re living in a generation of children whose parents have not allowed them feel failure. This goes beyond participation trophies to blaming teachers for bad grades, insisting coaches allow players who obviously didn’t practice to play and calling bosses on behalf of grown children to ask why they didn’t get a raise or a promotion.
Failure stinks. My stomach hurts everytime I lose a sales pitch. I feel anxiety over every query letter I send to an agent. Failure, however, is part of life. If I never pitched my book to an agent I could eliminate failure, but I’d eliminate success in the process. Oddly enough, failure actually teaches us more than success.
From success we learn to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re not reinventing the wheel because it works just fine, so we just keep using it. Failure teaches us how to build an airplane.
If I had never failed to make the cheer squad in 8th grade, I would never have joined the band and met some of my best friends. If I had not been turned down for so many jobs I applied for, I would never have opened my own consulting firm, where I have thrived for almost a decade. If I had never lost my very first job at 16 due to a lay-off, I would have never taken a job at a shoe store where I met my husband.
When our kids are afraid to fail they never take risks. They see all risks as bad which leaves them with a safe but often boring life. It’s up to us to not only allow them to be put into situations where they might fail, but also to guide them to learn from that failure.
First, our kids need to know failure isn’t fatal. Our children will not die over one D on a test or because they didn’t make the cheer squad or the baseball team. The sun will come up tomorrow and they will try again. We get to show them this by not coming off the rails about their failure ourselves and by allowing failure to happen. We don’t ask teachers to change grades. We don’t take forgotten gym bags to school. We don’t over punish for small infractions.
Second, we have to allow our kids to admit failure really, really stinks. They may need to take a minute and have a pity party. If it’s a big enough failure and they really tried hard at something, it’s okay to shed a few tears. Not getting a scholarship you wanted or losing the championship game really hurts. We need to make it okay for our kids to be sad about things sometimes.
Third, we have to allow our kids to accept the consequences of failure. We want to soften the blow. We want to create a soft place for our snowflakes to land. Some failure needs to hurt. Running laps in gym because you forgot your bag helps you remember it next time. Failing a test because you didn’t study drives home the point you need to actually try in school. Getting a ticket for speeding could actually save your child’s life.
Fourth, we need to teach our kids how to cope with failure. Coping looks different for everyone. One day my son had a really horrible day at school. He was in trouble all. day. long. The same day a very friendly police officer took time from his busy day to remind me of the speed limit on a new road. I bought a coke and my son and I drowned our sorrows in it. Coping may be creating a strategy to get better at something or finding a new passion. Whatever it is, our kids need us to show them the way.
It’s a struggle to remember this parenting gig isn’t just about the snuggles and fun. It’s about preparing my kids to live out Biblical principles in this world. And nothing teaches the principle of forgiving yourself like failure.