Teaching my kids to fail


This weekend I listened to a Freakanomics podcast on embracing failure or even the potential to fail. One of the stories they told was the explosion of the Challenger. I was in 6th grade, and I remember that day clearly. We weren’t watching the launch, but a teacher ran down the hall yelling for other teachers to turn on the television.

I remember vaguely the investigations and the feeling that a lot of people had made a really big mistake and that seven brave people had died because of it. It was fascinating (and horrifying) to hear that they had all the information they needed to avoid that disaster, but fear of failure — or desire to have succeeded no matter what — kept them from seeing what was in front of their faces. (Please note, that’s desire to have succeeded, not desire to succeed. That desire says, “I won!” even if all evidence says the contrary. That’s what happened here, to tragic results.)

Another aspect fear of failure is the refusal to do anything that might result in failure: the fear of risk. In the Transom, Ben Domenech talked about the Millenials fear of failure and linked to Megan McArdle’s article about high school kids refusing to take even minor risks, a more challenging class for example, lest it derail their entire life plan. In high school. Risk inherently implies the chance of failure; otherwise, it wouldn’t be risk. If you can’t take risks when you’re young and dumb and have nothing to lose precisely because you think you’ll lose everything, then when can you risk? Risk built this nation — it built everything of worth.  What happens when our culture fears failure so much that risk is impossible? (Are we already there?)

Nobody likes to fail. We don’t like not knowing how to do things, and we especially don’t like our ignorance known to others. We think failure says we’re weak or stupid. We fear if we fail in one thing, that means we’ll fail in other things. We think failing means we’re failures. And despite all the evidence and testimony to the contrary, we think successful people never fail.

But the only way to get to success is to walk through failure and ignorance.  We have to start out not knowing and not being able to get to knowledge and ability. There really is no other way. My kids will complain that they don’t want to do their lessons or a new task because they don’t know how. My response, “Well, duh, sweetheart. If you already knew it, you wouldn’t have to learn it.” If we won’t accept having our ignorance displayed or risk falling on our face, we’re condemned to a pretty small world. We will forever be shuffling in the cramped, riskless domain with which we’re comfortable and only expanding our world by micrometers.  No risk may mean less failure, but it also means a constricted life and certainly no success.

Sometimes we have to fail so we’ll give up so that we can spend our time and energy on something we’ll be really good at. And we might start by failing at whatever that is, too. Rather than fearing failure, we ought to stop and look at it. Figure out why we failed and what it means and how we can use that failure to get to success.

The great thing about teaching your kids to fail is that you don’t have to do it. We all know how to fail. What they need help with is to learn not to fear and avoid failure, as well as to be able to pick themselves up to try — and possibly fail — again.
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As a parent, the two big things I can do are give my kids tasks they can’t (yet) do and respond to their failed attempts with something other than impatience and exasperation on one hand or over-enthusiastic approval on the other hand. We need to set our kids up to fail by giving them tasks that are truly challenging.  We have to encourage our kids to do things we suspect they’ll do poorly. We need to not protect them from situations where they are badly over-matched. We need to beat them at Monopoly.

And when they do them badly — if it’s cooking dinner or picking up a new instrument, we have to respond like rational human beings. It is stupid to get frustrated and exasperated that your kid doesn’t turn out a gourmet meal the first time he puts on an apron. On the other hand, if you tell him that his burnt chunk of unidentifiable flesh is the best thing you’ve eaten, then you’re not helping either. If enthusiastic-for-the-guitar child finds out she’s completely unable and/or uninterested when push comes to shove, it’s okay to list the guitar on Craig’s List and recoup a little of your money. If your would-be writer shows you his story that’s a sure winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, don’t act like he’s written America’s Next Great Novel.

It’s okay to look at your child’s failure head on with her so that 1) she can learn not to be afraid of failing, and 2) fail differently the next time. It’s okay to say, “That’s great that you didn’t burn down the kitchen, but can you think where you might have gone wrong?” Unless your kid is a serial quitter, it’s okay to let her drop a hobby that doesn’t interest her like she thought. If it really bothers you, have her buy-in, pay or work for a portion of lessons or fees or whatever. But honestly, your kid doesn’t have an aptitude for something she thought she’d like. Big whoop. And if your kid really wants to be good at something, but all you ever say is, “That’s wonderful! Gold star!” then you are actively working against his success. You are putting up barriers to him getting better, and eventually, the world will tell him he sucks. How’s that helpful?

The lesson our kids (and we) need to learn is that failure is a common, everyday occurrence. That not only does everyone fail, but everyone fails frequently.  If you never fail, then frankly, you’re aiming too low and you’re learning nothing. So get out there and fall on your face!

Megan McArdle has a whole book on failure, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success. (af)

The Freakonomics podcast on failure is here.

One response to “Teaching my kids to fail”

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