Why I will Set my Children up for Failure

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

When I was young, I saw an episode of the cartoon Jimmy Neutron where he invents a purple mist that tastes good. I thought, why isn’t that a thing?? Delicious air? Heck yeah! I set to work filling a spray bottle with some sugar water (no other flavors, I figured I’d keep it simple in the beginning) and proceeded to spray it into the air in the kitchen over and over and over again to see when I’d added enough sugar to the bottle to be able to taste it. 

Now, some of you probably see coming what’s going to happen next, I, however, did not. 

After about 20 minutes of spraying sugar water into the air so that it would land on me, I started to notice my skin getting tighter… and my feet sticking to the floor… and that’s when my mother walked in the door.

Tired from her day at work and running my siblings and I around to our extracurriculars, she smiled wearily, grabbed the mop, and helped me clean the sticky kitchen.

When I was young, I liked to cook off and on. I say “off and on” because I liked to cook NEW things, but making something I’d made before bored me. It happened to be one of the few nights when my mother wouldn’t be home, so being the dutiful daughter that I was, I offered to cook dinner. Well I knew that I liked macaroni and cheese with meat and veggies mixed in, so I decided to try a version of that. I made angel hair pasta with peas, corn, carrots, and slices of hot dog. 

I loved it! My father, who has never liked his flavors mixed, smiled and ate every. last. Bite.

When I was young, I loved to make clothing. I liked sewing, sure, but I would make clothing using hot glue, thread, wire, cloth, newspaper, anything I could get my hands on. One day I decided that I wanted to make something truly extravagant. I dug through the fabric bin and found the most beautiful snow-white silk (okay, probably some ratty, old satin my mom had laying around) and the perfect piece of lace to match. I sewed the silk into a skirt but before gathering it, I sewed the lace onto the front. When it was done, I marched upstairs to show my mom. Her eyes flashed with shock in such an instant that I didn’t even notice, then she told me it looked beautiful, gave me a tip to keep the fabric from fraying, and I was on my merry way. It wasn’t until years later that I learned I’d inadvertently grabbed her lace dresser runner from a storage box, NOT a fabric scrap box, and in that split second she had to decide whether to reprimand me for something I’d worked so hard on, or praise me. 

We dug the skirt up again recently. Apparently I also thought that bigger, longer skirts were fancier

READER POLL! I couldn’t choose which of the three stories I should start this article with, thoughts?

They all illustrate my point in this post: I tried a lot of different things. I tried a lot of different things and I failed at a lot of them. I’d say my success rate was somewhere in the range of 20-40%. Even if I were exceptionally talented (BIG if) it’s not possible to try so many things and always be good at them! 

Failing never really bothered me, though, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why that is.

Actually, I never thought about it at all until I became a teacher. Now I sit in a classroom holding a piece of tape in one hand and two paper cups in the other, wondering why it is that I can’t seem to convince my student to take the cups and tape them together. 

He keeps looking away and fidgeting, he says he doesn’t know if that’s REALLY how he wants them taped, he asks if I can just tape it for him. 

And he’s not the only one.

I’m constantly amazed by the number of students I have who won’t try something out of fear of failing. They’ll ask me to do it for them, they’ll get upset and even cry if it doesn’t come together the way they think it should, or they’ll just sit and do nothing except wait for class to be over. What I’m seeing is a bunch of students who are too stressed to try. They’re afraid they’ll do something the wrong way and if they try and fail (something as simple as taping a popsicle stick to the wrong side so the catapult won’t work) they practically go catatonic. 

There are many reasons why kids can fear failing and I’m no psychologist so I don’t pretend to know them all, but I do know that the generation in which I grew up seems to be drastically different from the one upcoming.

When I was growing up, I failed a lot and that was okay. I think about the adults in my life who molded me into who I am and I know they have a lot to do with my success at failing. 

There seems to be two main reasons for a child becoming afraid to fail:

  1. A child is not allowed to fail by way of everything s/he does is a success no matter what.
    Many people are now starting to recognize the detriments of the “participation trophy” generation – this is one of them. If you’re a child and whenever you do something, adults are telling you that you’re amazing and successful, how can you not worry about the one time when you’re not successful? What should you expect? How will the adults react? It’s like when you’re playing a game with a winning streak: you know it can’t last forever so each play you’re more and more fearful of failing. 
    Instead, we should be teaching kids that they will fail and that’s okay. You didn’t win the soccer game today, the other team did, but that’s okay and you’ll get ’em next time! You didn’t tape your project together correctly, but that’s fine and I’ll help you fix it. 
  2. A child is not allowed to fail by way of punishment. For this second reason, I think back to my childhood specifically – why was I so okay with failing? Why did I never give trying something a second thought? To answer this question I reached back into my college psychology classes and pulled out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

My parents managed to raise some dang actualized kids. The top tier of this pyramid is “achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities”. Essentially, this post is about that top tier – feeling able to try new things, often creatively. 

Of the four bottom tiers, two are important, but the other two are directly related to trying new things. Relating to my own childhood, I had all of the first tier taken care of. I was lucky enough to have the basics: food and water and jazz. Jumping up to the third tier, I also always felt loved and accepted by my family. 

Jumping up again to the fourth tier, we start getting into the tiers that are directly related to trying new things. When it came to my esteem needs, I had enough successes to have good self-esteem. I tried a LOT of things, so some of them were bound to be successes if only per the Law of Truly Large Numbers. Then when I did have successes, even little ones, my family praised me and encouraged me on. Without that positive reinforcement, I’m not sure that I’d have created so often. Having that support was integral for little me flexing my creative muscles.

Jumping back down to the second tier, I always felt safe. If I messed up or did something wrong, I never worried I’d get hit or yelled at. I got a bunch of “stern talking to”s sure, but I was never afraid of repercussions for things that I wasn’t doing maliciously. I think back to that skirt I made with my mother’s nice dresser runner – she could have yelled at me, put me in a time-out, and seam-ripped it right off the skirt I’d made,  but she didn’t. If she had, I would have avoided the craft room for weeks, months, out of fear of using something else that I didn’t know I shouldn’t use. Feeling safe and secure doesn’t just mean that you don’t have to worry about being attacked, it means feeling safe to try new things without fear of lash-back for failing or for being wrong. If my mother had yelled at me for using that runner, I wouldn’t have feared her, but I would have feared making something new again. I wouldn’t have felt safe to do so.

When I say that I intend to set my children up for failure, it’s the honest truth. Failure is important – it’s how we learn and grow as people. I want my children to recognize that failure is an option and if it happens, that’s not a bad thing. Failing is always an option, refusing to try is not.

Warmly,

EGinny

Further reading:

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2 comments

  1. I am very grateful that I had parents who did their best to let me run wild a little – there were a lot of questionable sewing and woodwork projects all through my childhood, but it helped me learn. I see a lot of parents actively quashing that in their children – a lot of helicopter parents who swoop in to correct their children or do something for them the moment they make a mistake.

    Like

    • I see a lot of parents doing that too and it breaks my heart! I know they’re trying to help, but they’re depriving their kids of important learning opportunities.

      Like

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