Be Sure to Fail a Little Every Day
- Friday, November 23, 2012
Do you grant lots of do-overs, re-tries, and mulligans? Does your child get second, third, and fourth chances on every assignment? Do you set deadlines for academic projects and then move those goals back two or three times? Is your child failing to fail?
Early on as a high school Latin teacher I noticed a curious trend. Since the majority of my students are home-educated, parents often volunteer background information about their children when they register them for my classes. As every new school year starts, I often know that some of my students are profoundly gifted in some subject or profoundly challenged with a so-called disability. Regardless, all of my students are expected to complete the same assignments and quizzes on schedule.
Here’s the interesting part: many of my gifted students do a superb job until they have a bad week. One or two low quiz scores later and some of my cleverest kids will give up entirely. Meanwhile, my average and challenged students improve steadily each week, calmly taking setbacks in stride.
There is a reason for this paradox. Gifted students tend to be self-critical perfectionists even while difficult subjects come easily to them. They rarely meet a mental mountain they can’t climb, so failure is rare. When it does happen, the sting is painful. Average and challenged students, on the other hand, are more accustomed to academic difficulty. Failure may be on the menu every day for these learners who, in turn, respond more casually to disappointment. Experience tells them that failure isn’t fatal and life will go on.
Enter the study of Classical Latin or Greek. Even if a student has been brought up by a pair of Classics professors, he is not going to be spontaneously brilliant in these challenging topics. Learning Latin or Greek is always a matter of hard work. Success and failure will come to all; only hard work will make a difference. This can be earth-shattering to a gifted perfectionist who misinterprets his struggle to learn a tough subject as being “bad” at that subject. Unaccustomed to academic failure, he may hastily give up.
While we may not all have gifted students, we may unintentionally prevent our children from mastering healthy recovery from failure by never letting them fail. With the best intentions, we may try to nurture our children so carefully that they don’t suffer a real academic setback prior to college. By then, the first low grade or poor paper may be crushing and costly.
Second chances, no firm deadlines, and daily do-overs may seem like a great way to teach a subject well—but be careful. Persistently protecting a child from failure will do real damage. Shielding kids from failure will not develop confidence, self-esteem, or resilience. On the contrary! Confidence, self-esteem, and resilience result from a healthy response to, and recovery from, daily adversity. What we find in James 1:4 can be applied to every part of life: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (NIV).
Motivational teacher Paul J. Meyer summarized our need for a balance of success and failure with these words: “By seeing the seed of failure in every success, we remain humble. By seeing the seed of success in every failure we remain hopeful.” There are some easy ways to practice failure recovery once you realize how important this virtue can be to future success.
First, check your teaching habits. Do you always let your child retake the quiz, re-do the assignment, or push back the deadline? You should not institute Draconian measures overnight, but you should start to firm up expectations and stick to stated consequences.
Second, raise the bar: increase challenges, set expectations high, and then model healthy recovery when inevitable failures arise. Playing a musical instrument or reading a foreign language such as Latin and Greek are terrific at providing challenges, failure recovery, and pride over hard-won success.
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