Coming to Terms with Failure

Have you noticed that as parents we are reluctant to allow our children to fail? If they forget their sports uniform, we will travel to school and drop it off to save them from missing sports in the afternoon. We check their backpacks to make sure they included all of their assignments to save them from a late homework grade. When we receive a report from school that they were engaged in inconsiderate behavior toward a classmate, we defend them and doubt the validity of the claim. We tend to take many teachable moments and turn them into “saves”.

We tend to take many teachable moments and turn them into “saves”.

Sometimes I wonder whom it is we are saving. Is it really our children? Or are we actually saving ourselves from what we see as our failure as parents? If my child doesn’t play in today’s game, how will that reflect on me as the parent who failed to send her son to school with his uniform? If my child loses points in class for homework not handed in, am I worried what a disinterested/incompetent parent I will appear to the teacher?

What would it mean about me if I acknowledge that my daughter was mean to a classmate? Perhaps in unconsciously protecting our own identity as good parents, we are robbing our children of valuable life lessons. Perhaps, none of these examples reflect badly on us as parents at all. In fact, if we allow our children to experience these normal life lessons and provide them the skills with which to do so, aren’t we doing exactly what a good parent should?

I propose that we start thinking of the typical missteps and challenges of growing up as just that, mistakes, wrong choices and disappointments, instead of failures. I also propose that we see our children as adults in the making. I for one know that the best lessons I ever learned I learned the hard way. Hard lessons tend to stick for the long term.

Modeling the behavior for our kids of how to handle mistakes, wrong choices and disappointment is better than saving them from ever facing consequences or let-downs. If I am snappy on the phone with Aunt Ann, I should make sure my kids hear me when I own that and apologize. When I try to order Coldplay concert tickets and find it is sold out, I should let my kids know that I waited too long and I am disappointed, but I will show them how quickly I get over my disappointment.

As a Secondary School Counselor, I work with students to find “good fit” opportunities for high school. I would love it if every one of my students were admitted to every school for which they applied. Realistically, that is not the case. Are students placed on waitlists or denied because of a mistake they made? Not always. Often extremely qualified students land on a waitlist simply because of the small number of available seats and many qualified applicants.

Are they failures because they are not admitted to a particular school? No! Will they be disappointed if they do not gain admittance to a school they dreamed of attending? Yes. That is exactly when learning to manage a disappointment is a crucial life lesson. If we are dealing with a waitlist, we can focus on the solution of working to get moved to an admit position…and that requires patience and persistence.

If we are dealing with a denial, we have to acknowledge the reasons behind it and prepare to move forward with other options.  This requires an open mind and flexibility. I witness the students who learn patience, persistence and flexibility during adolescence become strong and resilient adults. Managing through a time of uncertainty provides a life long and invaluable skill set.

Don’t we want our children to grow up to be adults who have the capacity to handle the challenges that life throws their way? The challenges can’t be avoided, which makes learning how to manage disappointments and mistakes basic life skills that are best learned in our youth.

May the skill of resilience be well formed within our children before they leave home for college and beyond. If they can acknowledge a mistake or live with a disappointment, seeing it as just that, a disappointment and not a trauma or tragedy, haven’t we raised strong young people who will thrive in our world?

Let’s embrace the mistakes and disappointments instead of desperately trying to avoid them. If our children feel the result of their mistake, and we make mistakes normal for them, then they will learn a life skill that will make them stronger and more resilient future people.

 

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