Today’s culture encourages us to fear failure. Be the perfect straight-A student, the star of the team, or the best under-water-basket-weaver in the state and everyone will like you. Screw that up and you have no future. Your life is over.
The “swoop in and make sure my child never experiences a negative feeling” attitude we are parenting with these days is failing this generation of kids. What we need to be teaching them is you don’t learn anything unless you fail.
As a young boy, Thomas Edison‘s teachers considered him a failure. And he failed literally thousands of times before inventing the light bulb. Michael Jordan said “I have failed over and over in my life and that is why I succeed.” Steve Jobs taught us that it’s ok to fail. He was a college dropout and fired tech executive.
Why are we terrified of failure? Why do we go to such lengths to avoid it?
One of my best choices in life was leaving the business world in 2001 to teach middle school. It was in this setting I realized fear of failure has grown out of control in our culture. Parents go to great lengths to prevent their children from experiencing failure. And heaven forbid they ever feel bad about themselves!
Shelby Smith was a good, solid ‘A’ student. The daily math homework was graded on completion, not accuracy, and was due at the beginning of class. One morning I received a frantic email from Mrs. Smith. Shelby had left her homework on the kitchen table. Mrs. Smith went to the trouble of scanning and sending the assignment to me. When Shelby received a zero for not having her homework in class, Mrs. Smith was irate. She went to the head of school, demanding I give her daughter credit for the assignment. The result? She looked like a loon to the administration and embarrassed her daughter.
It wasn’t Mrs. Smith’s job to turn in her daughter’s math homework. It was Shelby’s responsibility. Her mom acted like the world was going to end, but in the bigger picture, one zero on a 6th grade math assignment does not change the course of a child’s life. And guess what? Shelby didn’t forget her homework on the kitchen table again. She also earned an ‘A’ that quarter.
Parents, we’ve got to stop this ludicrous behavior. We are setting our kids up to fail later in life by not allowing them to fail when they’re young. They need to learn how to deal with failure. How to get back up when things go wrong.
Last week I was helping my young son with a tricky question on his homework, and it was unpleasant. He was disrespectful. I calmly explained that if he wanted help with his homework he would need to change his attitude. He was going to have to finish this assignment on his own. I got up and started making dinner. He threw a fit. One of those tantrums that look more like an out-of-body experience.
After realizing his demon-possessed screaming didn’t work, he calmed down and attempted as much of the assignment as he could. There was one part he couldn’t do, but he would have to bring it to school incomplete.
Results from this experience:
1) My son and I both learned that he is capable of doing more of the work independently. Now he rarely needs my help with assignments.
2) The little man received a consequence at school. Ever since, he’s been respectful and appreciative whenever he needs help with homework.
3) It was really hard for me to follow through and let him fail in this situation. I learned to stick to my guns and let go. Let reality be the teacher.
4) He experienced the feeling of failure. He felt bad. He didn’t die. His future career as a doctor, entrepreneur, popsicle stand owner or whatever he aspires to be didn’t die on the vine either.
We can prevent this generation of kids from growing up to be people who can’t deal with failure. Stop swooping in and fixing their mistakes.
Let them fail.
Celebrate their mistakes.
What are some examples of times you’ve let your kids fail? What was the outcome?