A few months ago, my daughter was having a bad week. She had tried out for a couple of different extra-curricular activities, but she did not get into any of them. She was disappointed. I was disappointed for her. But I tried not to focus on my disappointment and instead comforted her by telling her that failure is a part of life.
Yes, I said the word: failure. It seems to me that too much of parenting is trying to prevent our children from the harsh realities of failing.
Granted, we have a lot of help. The Helicopter approach to parenting encourages environments where more children can succeed. Everybody gets a trophy, children’s sports games often are not scored, everyone gets to be a teacher’s “special” helper, and favoritism is deeply discouraged. Yet, are we not preparing them for the harshness of the real world?
I am starting to see more and more my college students not prepared for failure. In college, not everyone gets a trophy, the A, or even the degree. And, let’s face it: favoritism is all over the place. It’s human nature. Some people are going to be able to get more than others just because of their charm, or their connections, or maybe because they have a fluke thing in common with someone else. Rather than shaping a pre-collegiate world for children in which we struggle to shelter them from failure or shield them from favoritism, maybe we need to just let them know that’s how life is. In other words, we should provide them with the tools to cope.
Just this week, my daughter was preparing for a school debate. She told me that she had been thinking about it, and the kids that managed to win the extra-curricular activities she had been competing for in the past all had done “something extra” in their presentation. She suggested that maybe she should do something extra. She learned. Failing had not doomed her to a life of feeling that she wouldn’t be successful, but inspired her to strive further.
Recently, Adam Grant argued that if children are to be raised to be creative, they need the opportunity to be original, which is difficult to achieve within many school systems and in an age of the over-structured childhood. I would add that having a safe place to fail is probably just as important. So, this semester, for my own children at home and for the students that I teach, I’m not going to be afraid of the F word. In fact, I’m going to give them chances to fail at something so that they can then learn how to find creative solutions to improve. Whether it’s building in more low-stakes challenging assignments at the beginning of the semester or not overly comforting my children when they didn’t achieve what they wanted, this is my gift to the next generation.
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