How to help your kid: let them fail

I have been thinking of failure lately. I have recently just gone through a three to four month period where I have not accomplished any of my own goals set – finishing my manuscript, running the marathon (oh, I did the training part. I just neglected to actually register until it was too late and the marathon was full) and generally just being better than I am now. So when I received the four, terse form email rejections of my poems it was a hard pill to swallow.

Now, don’t get me wrong. When one sends out submissions, one usually expects to get rejected. That is the nature of this farcical game of getting published. Usually it doesn’t bother me. But when I haven’t been writing and my whole perspective is already slightly cocked toward the howl of the self-doubt wolves with their haunting cries of “You suck! Stick with your day job!”, it is hard not to feel defeated.

And I do feel defeated. For a couple of days. Then I give myself a mental kick in the ass and realize that the only antidote is to work harder. The beauty in this simple and elegant silver bullet (we are talking about getting rid of wolves and these kind are most definitely of the Were variety) is that either way it cannot fail. Because work is just work. It is unjudgeable when you are actually doing it. It is only with the finished product- the creative object where you have something that can be criticized, weighed, measured and found wanting (or not) by your peers.

So if you keep working, even if you are sending stuff out, you always have a fully loaded pistol with silver bullets for the bloody wolves.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson I learned late in life (well, in my twenties, but still. I wasted vast fields of time not trying anything for fear of failure, not realizing that the actual trying is the antidote for the inevitable failure) and above all I fear my children will not learn it until well in adulthood. Some of my biggest anxieties as a parent stem from wanting so much for them to feel the satisfaction of having worked hard and accomplished something – not for us, or for anybody else, but only because they had set themselves a goal and worked their butts off to see it through.

However, part of that lesson, I think, encompasses failure.

Remember that seen in the movie Amadeus, where Mozart is dictating his compositions to Salieri and they are all coming out like perfect photocopies from his brain pan? I can’t tell you how damaging that scene has been in my life. Thinking that everything I write should come out perfect or else I was just garbage paralyzed me. It took me years to chip away at that particular myth, solidified to Obelisk proportions in my head.

I do not want my daughters to suffer any such misconception on the nature of talent and skill. I want them to try and to fail and then to try and try again until they get it.

I read this  New York Times entitled, “What if the Secret of Success is Failure?”   recently and the ideas behind it tapped the “duh” nerve (located at the back of my neck, just in case you were wondering). Essentially it has been found that the students who succeed in life are not necessarily the one who did well in school. They are the ones who had to struggle and work twice as hard and therefore know how to deal with disappointment – with the inevitable ego blows that happen when you are not at the front of the pack. What this does is teach resiliency. And, yes, here it comes, that Leave it to Beaver, Post-world War II, parents-know-best mantra: it builds character.

Character has now been proven to be the key ingredient in success, not high IQ (although I think having the luck to be born into a privileged social class probably trumps them all):

“We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City,” Levin said. “We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It’s all going to be solved. But it wasn’t.” Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent. But it still falls well short of KIPP’s stated goal: that 75 percent of KIPP alumni will graduate from a four-year college, and 100 percent will be prepared for a stable career.
As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day. New York Times

“[The successful] were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence.” The article goes on to describe how the Kipp schools  and Riverdale, a fancy private school, instituted a character strength report card. The kids would be evaluated on these 24 character strengths:

The 24 Character Strengths

Zest: approaching life with excitement and energy; feeling alive and activated
Grit: finishing what one starts; completing something despite obstacles; a combination of
persistence and resilience.
Self-control: regulating what one feels and does; being self-disciplined
Social intelligence being aware of motives and feelings of other people and oneself
Gratitude: being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
Love: valuing close relationships with others; being close to people
Hope: expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it
Humor: liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing a light side
Creativity: coming up with new and productive ways to think about and do things
Curiosity: taking an interest in experience for its own sake; finding things fascinating
Open-mindedness: examining things from all sides and not jumping to conclusions
Love of learning: mastering new skills and topics on one’s own or in school
Wisdom: being able to provide good advice to others
Bravery: not running from threat, challenge, or pain; speaking up for what’s right
Integrity: speaking the truth and presenting oneself sincerely and genuinely
Kindness: doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them
Citizenship: working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to the group
Fairness: treating all people the same; giving everyone a fair chance
Leadership: encouraging a group of which one is a valued member to accomplish
Forgiveness: forgiving those who’ve done wrong; accepting people’s shortcomings
Modesty: letting one’s victories speak for themselves; not seeking the spotlights
Prudence/Discretion: being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks
Appreciation of beauty: noticing and appreciating all kinds of beauty and excellence
Spirituality: having beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe –New York Times

 Intriguing isn’t it? Especially at this time of year, when all the grades fives and sixes here in Montreal are hopping like psycho bunnies to every high school open house (except for my grade fiver. I refuse to do it this year).  11 year-olds who must study all summer to take entrance exams to the private schools and, if they can’t afford that, the good public schools and are being judged solely on the basis of extremely academic exams.

It gives you pause.

Although my eldest daughter is doing very well right now, better academically than she has ever done before, this was not always the case. She struggled with the French language (having to learn it at the same time as trying to read it) and was almost shunted through the public system as a kid with learning disabilities. However, I always knew that she had other characteristics that make her an asset to any group she participates in: Social intelligence. Kindness. An extremely well functioning moral compass. Yet I knew that when we were growing through the process of finding a high school last year, no school, based on the current admissions exams, would ever know this.

Although any sort of grading process leaves me deeply ambiguous (there are too many variables with each individual for it ever to be an accurate portrayal of someone’s capabilities) the way the character evaluation was implemented by KIPP helped pinpoint some of the very personal mental hurdles the students needed to jump in order to achieve their full potential. For example, if all the teachers come back with a comment such as “so and so freaks out everytime she comes across something she doesn’t understand.” In the meeting with the parent and the student, the advisor can then talk to the student about this, and perhaps suggest a series of steps or avenues she could try to calm herself down.

I would love to hear what you think about the 24 characters and the character report card. Is it a good idea, in your opinion? What are the pitfalls? What if a kid comes back with 0 on all 24? Would it be easy to view this report card as a harbinger of failure? Is this another way to pigeon hole people?Or is this an aspect of education that has been missing from schools?

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2 Responses to How to help your kid: let them fail

  1. Alice Zorn says:

    It's occurred to me, watching my niece, that being the smartest in the class isn't good for her. She's not learning how to be a team player. She's a poor loser. I'm reminded of myself as a 10-yr-old and all the bad habits I had to unlearn as an adult.
    I don't like all the characteristics on that list of 24. I'd worry that using a list like this would onlyu slot kids into a different version of A, B, C… F. And who would your trust to grade “integrity”?
    I don't know if this will encourage or discourage you with your poetry, but I didn't start writing until I was 30 and didn't publish a short story until I was 40. That sounds ancient in our youth-oriented culture, so I was delighted to read the statistics recently compiled by the Conseil des arts et lettres, in which largest age group for publication of a first book is 45-55. (If I'm remembering my stats correctly.)

  2. Carrie says:

    I agree with what Alice said — I also do not like some of the characteristics on that list:
    as Alice said, who defines these? How does one determine appropriate curiosity, integrity, spirituality, etc.?

    What is “full potential” anyway? How is that defined? Can't one's “potential” (I hate that word!) change an infinite number of times? Isn't it just a false construct anyway? I know I haven't lived up to the “potential” my parents/peers assigned to me as a kid. But I've also subverted that potential. So. Who wins, exactly? Nobody wins. The prize is different for everyone.

    My point being that everyone is going to have different definitions of success/potential/whatever you want to call it — and those definitions are definitely going to change over time.

    I still haven't learned that lesson about writing/creating you have already learned — the thing that you fear most for your children.

    But I haven't given up. Yet.

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