Your child is a failure. My children are failures. You are a failure. I am a failure.
Ok, don’t start throwing things yet. Our society vastly underrates the value of failure. We all fail. Most of us fail daily: at school, at work, in art, in the kitchen, at play, and in our relationships. We are all failures. We need our failures.
Just as Edison needed his myriad ways not to make a light-bulb in order to achieve success, we need our failures in order to learn. We need our failures in order to learn what doesn’t work and by extension what does. We need our failures in order to learn how to problem solve. We need our failures in order to learn to adapt. We need our failures in order to learn to persist. We need our failures in order to grow.
Sunday was diorama drama day in our house. As part of a 4th grade book report, Aidan was making a diorama depicting the California Gold Rush. His original plan had involved making a figure of a miner panning for gold out of modeling clay. Now, while I did buy him some of the little pine trees (they were adorable; how could I resist?), we do not generally allow our kids to have pre-fab presentation kits. You want to build something? You find the materials and you build it. You want an animal? Make one – needle-felt it, sculpt it, whatever. Do it yourself.
Aidan had drawn a miner with a pickaxe in the background, painted the riverbed, and figured out how to affix the trees. Now he was ready for his figurine.
Scene 1: Clay blob. The modeling clay was too wobbly to support a kneeling figurine.
Scene 2: Wire skeleton. He decided that his guy needed a skeleton. So, Aidan went to the garage, found the reel of fencing wire, borrowed the wire cutters and got to work. He bent the wire pieces into the shapes of kneeling legs, a torso, arms, and head. He then pressed the clay muscle and bones onto the skeleton.
Scene 3: Tears. Of the words parents hate to hear coming from a work area, “THIS IS STUPID!” has to top the list. The miner (which I actually thought was much better than anything I could have done at that age) was not to scale. He dwarfed the pine trees; ok, they looked like weeds. Mike and I tried the “the trees are in the distance” approach, but Aidan wasn’t buying it.
I take back my earlier statement. Where school projects are concerned, there is another set of words that I dread even more than the above. “Several (yes, my nine-year old talks like this) other people have turned in their dioramas already. And they were PERFECT! Mine looks HORRIBLE!” Hugging my son and growling under my breath, I told Aidan, “Well, I don’t think it’s bad, but it’s your project, so do what you need to to make it look the way you want” and went back to my office.
Scene 4: Facebook status update.
A plaintive plea to other grade school parents: please, please don't do your child's projects for them. Don't even "help" substantially. Help them figure out how they want to do it. Let them struggle a bit. Help them problem solve, but don't do the construction. It isn't fair to those children whose "mean" parents feel that school projects are for children to do. My kid should not have to compare his work to that of 30, 40, or 50 year olds. Thank you. That is all.
Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the other “perfect” dioramas, so I have no idea what, if any, parental input they received. However, I have seen plenty of school projects over the years that were not completed solely, primarily, or perhaps even in part by children. As a parent, the clean-edged, polished display that is obviously beyond the capability of an elementary school child makes me grit my teeth. It’s hard enough raising kids with perfectionist tendencies without knowing that they are comparing their efforts to work that was not done by their peers.
But, there is another aspect to parental project participation that makes me sad. The children whose parents “help” by doing all or most of the cutting, gluing, design, etc. are losing out. They are being denied the gift of failure.
We all need to screw up. We need to plan something and watch it fall down or crumble to bits. We need to make a figurine that isn’t to scale. We need to put forth an effort that was less than our best and face the consequences – even if those consequences are a bad report or a failed grade. We need the gift of our mistakes – they are the fertilizer of our lives. (Don’t make me use the obvious excrement metaphor.)
How many of us have crossed the waters of adulthood without foundering? Speaking personally, I have: been fired from my first professional job; lost a house; been laid-off another job, hurt and been hurt by the ones I love; and made more mistakes than I care to contemplate. But, each failure has made me stronger, braver, more creative, and more loving.
How have I been able to grow from my failures? I have a memory of cross-country skiing with my family. I must have been about ten years old – about Aidan’s age. Descending hills on narrow skis that are longer than you are tall is tricky at any age, and given that I had trouble walking without falling down, my rear was no stranger to the snow. Halfway down one hill, I took a particularly spectacular tumble. I was on the steep edge of the hillside, legs twisted, skis pointed in opposite directions and one pole out of reach downhill.
I was cold, wet, bruised of butt and of ego, and my legs ached. In tears, I asked my parents to come pull me up. They came and stood near me, but didn’t extend a hand.
“Help me up!”
My dad handed me my wayward pole.
“I can’t get up. Help me.”
“You can do it yourself. Get your skis straightened out and pointed across the hill.”
“I can’t do it. I need help.”
“You’re big enough to do it yourself. You know how.”
“I can’t. I’ll fall.” I pushed myself halfway up and slid partway down the hill, skis still in a knot.
“You aren’t trying. Get your skis straight and parallel. Use your poles.”
“I need help.”
“Someday you’ll fall and we won’t be around to help you up. You need to learn to do it yourself.”
Later, there was hot chocolate, and I’m sure that in my mind at the time, that was the only thing that redeemed my parents from utter cruelty. But, as an adult, I don’t remember the hot cocoa. I only remember the gift of that last sentence. As a parent, I now know the struggles that my parents didn’t show me as they stood there. I know how hard it was for them to let me try, and fail, and not rescue me.
I wrote a guest blog last week about “saving” others. One of the points I made was that rescuing diminishes the rescued. Every time we refuse to let someone fail or to dig themselves out of failure, we tell them that we believe them incompetent.
Sometimes I hear parents say that they don’t want their children to feel overwhelmed or bad about their mistakes. I find myself sometimes arguing the opposite to teachers. Please, please challenge my children. Please push them. Please call them on their sloppy work, on their failures. Please tell them that they are better than that. Please let them know that you believe that their best efforts, uneven edges and all, are the work you expect from them – and then let them know that you expect better next time.
Life doesn’t get easier as we get older. The scary, frustrating, and challenging things that attack us from the outside and from within only get bigger and darker. Like everything, overcoming adversity takes practice. Facing failure is like the metaphor of the man lifting the calf every day from the moment of its birth. Eventually, he is still able to lift the grown cow. If we allow our children to cope in small ways with the frustrating and scary, perhaps, someday they will have the tools to lift the whole thing.
Circling back to school and teaching; this is the best description I have ever seen of the value of a teacher: