“By allowing my child to fail, I was teaching him about success.”
I actually confronted the issue of failure recently with my kindergartener. In our second year of homeschooling, he hadn’t really had to face any degree of failure before.
Then, we started to struggle with addition, and my default-plan of letting my son choose his best papers to show his father wasn’t giving my husband a complete picture of how we were really doing. As I talked over our struggles with my husband, he was a little confused; after all, he saw only success and mastery. I decided I’d better make some changes to my default-plan. And that’s what led to my discovery that I was failing to truly teach about failure.
The next day, my son worked a math sheet and missed several addition problems. Together we talked through the right answers to the problems that I had checked. He reworked the problems with me and then I broke the news to him: “We’re going to show Daddy this page, because he needs to know what we have trouble with as well as what we’re doing well in.” Immediately my son burst into tears. Suddenly, I understood the unintentional lesson I was teaching my son.
Inadvertently, I was teaching him that only success brought reward, that only perfection brought the attention that he wanted. I wasn’t giving my husband the opportunity to praise my son for determination or perseverance; my son was only receiving his daddy’s praise for perfect papers. It wasn’t a lesson either my husband or I had planned to teach, and it definitely wasn’t our view of success. But regardless, my son had already shaped the idea in his head that approval was gained through perfection.
Daddy came home that day, and my son sheepishly showed him the marked-up paper. And the most beautiful lesson unfolded: a lesson of love despite imperfection, a lesson of approval for a best effort, and a lesson of praise for character rather than performance. As I watched my husband and my son interact, I couldn’t help but wonder at how close I came to missing out on this moment.
What if I had chosen to show the paper to my husband without my son’s knowledge? What if I had caved to my son’s tears and decided not to show that paper at all? What if I had continued with our trend of only showing off the best?
My son would probably not have been scarred for life had we not addressed the issue of failure in this way; but then again, he might very well have developed an attitude of success vs. failure that would begin to shape his future.