The Gift of Failure

Recently, a friend of mine posted an article on FaceBook about kids and their homework. In it the author expresses her consternation about ‘signing off’ on her 2nd grader’s homework. She writes:
But just what was required of me? Was I supposed to let him hand in only correct answers? Was I supposed to teach him the skills that he didn’t yet know on these enrichment-type worksheets? Or was I simply signing to show that I was aware of what he is working on?
She never asks the teacher the above questions, but that’s not what’s important. The real question is: when should parents and teachers allow children to experience failure? I don’t think this is a question just reserved for kids, I think this is relevant for anyone who is in a position to help or hinder someone’s growth–in other words, everyone.
I recall when my 4-6 year old students were preparing for a test and a concerned mother queried, “What if David doesn’t pass?”. I replied, “He’ll learn to try harder next time. Besides, he’s only 5 years old, if he doesn’t fail now, when is a more appropriate time?” I won’t bore you with the details, but an interesting conversation ensued about when it’s appropriate to fail and how that gift of failure can instill a sense of pride, responsibility and discipline.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek saying about elections: “vote early and often”. If you could vote early and often, you’d have a better chance of success. Similarly, the best time to make mistakes is when you are younger and the stakes are lower. The earlier a child fails, the easier it is to guide them towards success, resilience and the promotion of a growth mindset. A growth mindset believes that genetics and natural talent are only the starting point. Someone who uses their genetics as a springboard rather than an endpoint learns the value of hard work, determination and perseverance.
In this highly competitive world we tend to view failure as an event that slows people down and undermines confidence, but I believe we need to make a distinction between our failures and the failures experienced by another. Who learns confidence in their balance faster in the below examples?
  1. A child loses his balance, falls down, scrapes his knee, cries because it’s painful.
  2. A child who is caught before he loses his balance and doesn’t scrape his knee ever.
  3. A child wearing protective equipment loses his balance, falls, down and hops right up, because he didn’t hurt himself.
I don’t think there is a single answer for everyone and what response is elicited from the caretaker is just as important as the event. However, I believe that if we obsess about every little failure, bump, bruise or scratch, we make people more fearful and less confident. By being so concerned about failure, and therefore success, we may stimulate the beginnings of a fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset equates making a mistake to being a failure. Children, and adults for that matter, need to let discrete events stand on their own merit instead of making overgeneralized extrapolations. Understanding success and failure this way allows a child to objectively critique their own behavior. This type of self-critique becomes a valuable form of self-discovery and self-discipline, which provide a foundation for positive growth.
Failure is one feedback mechanism we have to guide us through life, success is another. When failure is the main experience, a person may feel alienated from the concept of success and vice versa. This creates a distorted view of reality wherein one finds obstacles that do not exist or claims success where there is no merit.
And what about excessive failure? Some people thrive on failure and it makes them try harder and find ways around obstacles, while others can really wallow in failure and get stuck. Since the distortions are limitless, it is important for children to experience success and failure early on. It is the job of the parent or the educator to help calibrate the scales.
In the end, no matter how hard you may teach another about your failures, people are still going to have to experience their own. Practice makes perfect. When the two are in balance, failure will become the fuel that leads them to successes never imagined.

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