Teach Your Child To Fail

Failure.  We hate it.  It’s bad enough when we experience it, but when it happens to our kids, it’s truly painful.  But there are two ways to fail.  The first leads to withdrawal, hurt pride, and giving up.  The second leads to success in the long run.   This kind is called failing forward and it leads to true learning.  Instead of quitting in the face of defeat it means getting back up, reassessing, and trying again.  The difference between the two types of failure is enormous and can change the trajectory a person’s life.

Failure itself is inevitable, of course, if one attempts to grow and learn.  Most great inventors, creatives, and history makers fail hundreds of times in their attempts to change the world before they ever see success.  But what separates them from those who grow discouraged and give up (aside from special intelligence, timing, or talent) is their ability to fail forward—to inch toward their goals, even as they land on their backsides again and again.

We want this kind of grit for ourselves.  Perhaps even more than that, we want to nurture it in our kids because we sense it will help them to achieve what they’re meant to do.  But how can we help them when it seems like some people are just born more resilient than others?

As usual, it starts with us.

We moms must teach our kids that failure is not the enemy.  We must convince them that it is a teacher that shows us what didn’t work and gives us hints as to what will.  There are things we can do to pave the way for failing forward in our kids.

·      We must manage our expectations.  When our kids try something new, do we expect them to “get it right” after a couple of tries?  Do we secretly hope that they make us look good when they play the piano? Do we experience a rush of irritation when our child stands up to give a speech in the local co-op, one we helped him practice many times in the last week, and he stammers, forgets whole sections, and says silly things? (Guilty as charged).  If we want to encourage proper risk-taking in our kids, we homeschool moms must let go of the results of their efforts.  We must divorce our sense of self-worth from the outcome of those attempts.  This is easier said than done, certainly, but it is imperative.  A child who is afraid to make mistakes (and disappoint Mom) is a child who will not try new things.

·       We must prepare our reaction to our child’s failure before it happens.  Sometimes it catches us off guard when our kids fail and we don’t always say what we ought to say.  Those moments after the sting of defeat are crucial ones for our kids and they are often looking to us to know how to feel about them.  We can decide, in advance, how we will handle those times, even creating a script for ourselves.  We might say, “I saw the effort you put into that car you made.  And even though it fell apart, I am so proud of how hard you worked on it.  That kind of focus will take you far.  Keep trying because I know you can do it.”  Knowing what we will say before our child fails will help us to respond in an encouraging way.

·      We must allow our kids to see us fail.  Um, ouch.  No one likes to fail.  But grown-ups like to fail least of all.  We all do, however, and it’s important to be honest with our kids when we try something and it doesn’t work.  We could say, “You know, I interviewed for that position and I didn’t get it.  I’m disappointed but I won’t let that stop me.  I’m going to keep trying and trust that the right job will come my way.”  Or in my case, “I’m still working on my book, and there’s lots I have to scrap.  I’m tired just thinking about it.  But it means a lot to me, so I’m going to take a break and try again—even though I don’t feel like it right now.”  We think these kinds of conversations don’t make much of an impact on our kids, but they do.  Our kids are always listening.

·      We must be honest about fearThis is getting into the weeds, I know.  But why do people not try new things?  Because they don’t want to mess up.  Why don’t they want to mess up?  Because they are afraid—afraid to look stupid or like losers.  But decisions that are fear-based are often not good ones.  There are sensible reasons to be afraid of some risk-taking, of course.  Nine times out ten, however, we hold ourselves back from trying new things or embracing new opportunities because we are scared, not because we are prudent.  And guess what?  Our kids pick up the unspoken message that to “play it safe” and “be like everyone else” is the way to avoid failure.  As they grow, they inherit our fears, adding some of their own, until they lose the ability to step out in faith in a variety of ways.  We need to show our kids that while fear in the face of failure is normal, it will not be the deciding factor in our choices.  This starts with asking ourselves in what ways we are “stuck” or afraid.  For me, it means praying and asking the Lord to show me where I’m allowing fear to control my decisions.  We need to be honest with our kids when we’re afraid of trying something new, and then we need to try it anyway.

We teach our kids how to go potty and how to tie their shoes when they are little.  Later we teach them math and biology.  But one of the best lessons we can teach, a lesson that will last a lifetime, is how to fail and to keep moving forward.      


What My Daughter Thinks of Me

The living room is gentle in gray walls and we sit in our corners on opposite sides of the room.  My daughter is wrapped in a blanket on the couch and I sit across in the striped chair with my coat still on because I’m always cold.  We look at each other, same blue eyes, and then I let myself glance away to float on the sun stripes that dissect the floor.

I wish I could crawl into her heart, sometimes, to see what’s there.  She’s Rapunzel’s tower, tall and secure.  Let down your heart, I call from the ground below.  She is kind and nine, a mystery I’m left to solve.

She rubs a lazy hand over the triumphant dog perched on top of the couch, and her face is soft with private affection.  Her lips curl over braces we just paid for and that puffy mouth makes her look like a baby.  She murmurs something to the dog, then pulls out the bobby pin that holds her growing-out bangs and shoves it into the loose-weave of the blanket.  I open my mouth, check myself.

I am driven, though I wish to God I wasn’t.  She is a dreamer and I remember being a dreamer once, too.  If I let myself, I can still summon childish surprise at the physical world, feel the solid return to pavement after flying.

And now?

Now I press hard on the lid of the snake-in-a-can inside, hoping all the striving, and teaching, and trying, and dying will stay contained.  Yes, I teach my daughter but what does she learn?  I stare at her face to capture a glimpse of the truth before it darts away, that silver fish that eludes my net.

What I want to ask her is this:  Am I too much for you?  Will you keep dreaming?  Is my shushing and smoothing and  fussing and judging and defining ruining you?  Because I can only be me, and Jesus changes people, but sometimes he goes slow.  So?

But what comes out of my mouth is, Tell me something.

My daughter tilts her head to one side and says, Like what?  Then I tell her to give me advice on what kids need.  But what I need is to take our pulse, hers and mine.

She thinks, then says, “My advice is to go outside everyday if the weather lets you.  And dogs are important.  They are the best part of the day.”

Well, this isn’t what I meant, though a part of me is relieved.

“Also, it feels bad when you correct me.  I remember it, but it fades.”  She pauses.

Here comes everything else, I think.

“I know one thing,” she says.  “People should let their kids sew.”

She smiles at me and shrugs.  My heart contracts.  I still don’t know what she thinks of her mother, but right now I don’t care.