November 4, 2013

The Many Gifts of Failure.

When I became a parent over four years ago, I was asked what I wanted for my daughter.

Many responses were typical: I want her to be happy, I want her to be kind and tolerant of others, etc. However, there was one that took many people aback: I want her to experience failure.

Many asked me to elaborate on this, so I did. I explained that I wanted my daughter—and all children really—to know what it’s like to attempt something and not succeed or at least, not succeed in the way that she thought she would. While some nodded in understanding, more than a few wore aghast, puzzled looks on their face. The expressions said it all:

“How can a parent want a child to fail? Doesn’t that go against every fiber of one’s parental instinct?”

I can understand.

At the risk of sounding like a cliche, I know from experience just how strong that parental instinct to protect is. It’s natural to want to protect children from the evils of the world. I would never suggest setting up a baby or young child for failure but I do think like anything else, it can be taken to an extreme.

I was part of that last generation of kids where failure of some kind was pretty routine. I remember not making the cheer leading squad, the soccer team, and not having what I thought was a pretty amazing charcoal drawing of a fruit bowl picked for the school art show. I also remember the sting of getting my first Advanced Biology test back and finding out I failed by three points.

At the time, all of them stung, but there were silver linings to all of them.

For example, I remember being remarkably proud of myself for having plucked up the courage to even try out for cheer leading in the first place. Not making the soccer team confirmed my nagging suspicions that sports wasn’t really for me, while as far as that drawing went, even I had to admit that if I was a stranger looking at it, I would not have given it a second glance. As for the failing grade on the test, it proved I had to put my nose to the grindstone for that class if I hoped to pass it.

In each case, I remember my grandmother saying, “At least you tried. That’s what matters.”

She was right. In each situation, the actual process was in some way rewarding or fun. The outcome may not have been what I desired, but no one could take away the joy of the process.

Fast forward a few years later, and I was surprised to hear of situations where no one was ever cut from a sports team, everyone was given a trophy for just participating and failing grades were either “changed” after a talking with parents or were not given at all.

While at the time, I agreed (and still agree) that children needed to have high self-esteem, I couldn’t help but wonder even back then if this could backfire.

In a word, yes, it can and does.

Over the past decade, I have met and worked with people who were never allowed to fail as children or young adults. What many of them and their parents did not seem to acknowledge is that adults fail, too. In fact, it’s impossible to get through young adulthood without failing at something. When it finally happens, the fallout for someone who has never failed at anything before can be great.

In the case of one woman I knew, the failure of her first marriage to a “perfect” man (i.e., one that was a handsome, well-educated and professional) took her to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

As she said repeatedly, “I am not supposed to fail at anything!” At one point, she even lashed out at her parents, saying that she knew they loved her, but if they really had wanted to prepare her for life then they “should have let [her] hit bottom a few times.”

She was right.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that fears failure above all else.

We only hear about stories of failed business ventures, failed romances as a precursor to the thing that came along later and made up for that.

“His first business failed, but then his second one made him a millionaire!” or “Her heart was broken but then she met the love of her life!”

Rarely do we hear how the failures in and of themselves offered up any sort of valuable lessons or deeper insight into themselves.

As a teacher of both adults and children, I cannot help but wonder if the fact that I did get more than one “F” on a test as a kid or who failed spectacularly at her first real job makes me more empathetic or at least relatable than someone who chirps about how all it takes to achieve anything is hard work and dedication.

Therefore, if only for these reasons alone, I do hope that one day my child and others like her will one day experience failure and possibly even experience it more than once.

Rather than tear down her self-esteem and self-worth, I believe it will make her stronger and in the long run, will cause her to ultimately be successful, both in the professional sense but more importantly in the personal sense.


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Ed: Catherine Monkman

{Photo: Flickr.}

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