Monday, March 12, 2012

Failure is an Option

As a follow-up to my post last week about Aaron's struggles with letters and numbers, I wanted to talk about the importance of failure in a child's healthy development.  Failure, of course, is scary and embarrassing for mature grown-ups; so why should we steer our kids in its direction and give them chances to meet it head-on?  It's for these reasons we parents often trip over ourselves to sing our kids' praises whenever they do anything good, quickly shoo them away from the scene of anything they're bad at, and insist that their activities are similarly disposed.  (Trophy for everyone on the baseball team, anyone?)

A colleague of mine had an eye-opening experience at work this week regarding the consequence of this kind of childhood.  (I am blurring some of the details to maintain confidentiality.)  A recent college grad who is a new hire on the job and who my colleague is mentoring said, during a team meeting, that he had never failed at anything.  And it didn't come across as arrogance.  Rather, it was a statement of truth; things he did well, he continued to do and got better at, and things he did not do well, he stopped doing and never revisited.

This youngster is bright enough that he's good at plenty of things so as to compensate for avoiding other things he's not good at.  But I pity him dearly.  After all, unless you are preternaturally gifted, most everything in life is hard, and takes some effort - and, yes, some failure - before we even become competent, let alone excellent.  Avoiding failure, far from freeing you, cages you terribly. 

Failure is uncomfortable, to be sure, and kids' psyches can be fragile, so I'm not arguing that the other extreme - constant haranguing, never feeling like you measure up, not ever getting a chance to "put points on the board" - is any healthier.  But it's an important life lesson to learn how to fail, how to harness those feelings of failure, and how to persistent through multiple failures en route to success. 

When my kids hit a wall - and, while they have their talents, they are far less naturally gifted than many of the kids of my smart friends, so they will hit walls a lot more often than many of their peers - I hope to be the kind of dad to come alongside them.  For comfort, yes, but also to let them know that failure is good, because it identifies areas where we can improve, and also to teach them how and why to persist.  For very little in life that is worthwhile is obtained without some effort - and, yes, some failure. 
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