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We Must Teach Our Children to Fail Gracefully

Failure is a learning experience. It helps us grow

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I didn’t realize I was inadvertently hurting my oldest child until it was far too late. After years of thinking I was doing what was best as a mother, it became abundantly clear I had the opposite effect.

When my oldest son started kindergarten, it seemed so innocent. He would forget his winter boots in the morning, so I would run home to grab them. We only lived a few blocks from the school, and I was a stay-at-home mom, so it wasn’t a big deal. Plus, I didn’t want my little buddy to miss out on recess with his newfound friends! As he grew in age, this became a common theme. I would be raising my voice in the school drop-off lane because he forgot his cold lunch. Or homework. Or who knows what else. But off I would go to retrieve the missing item from home and return it to the school. It came to the point that I dreaded mornings. My son wouldn’t get out of bed until I was yelling, and then he would move about as fast as a turtle stuck in peanut butter. And of course, he would inevitably forget something.

Parenting Fail

No matter what I did to be efficient, there was always a battle. One Saturday morning, my husband was messing around and woke our son with a GET-UP. WE HAVE TO GO! SCHOOL STARTED AN HOUR AGO! urgency. My son’s reply? Nothing. He didn’t even budge. So my husband tried again, this time with a bit more urgency in his voice. My son finally replied, with his face still muffled by his pillow; It’s not funny, dad. I know we aren’t late; MOM WOULD NEVER LET ME FAIL!!!

Wait; what? You mean to tell me that all these years I have been stressing out every morning, pulling out my hair, all because my son realized that I wouldn’t let him fail? Are you kidding me? Talk about a wake-up call! Good moms help their kids, right? That’s what I thought I was doing. Right then, I decided things had to change. I was enabling my son to not take responsibility for his mistakes because he knew I wouldn’t let him fail.

Failure in our classrooms

Upon returning to the workforce, I became an educator in the Gifted and Talented program for our local school district. I realized very early on that these students were struggling with failure in a far different way. Many of the students were being challenged academically for the first time. (*Disclaimer* I’m not saying their teachers didn’t do a great job, because they were fantastic! Our G/T program started around third grade, when classroom differentiation becomes more difficult regarding gifted students.)

Because these students were used to understanding grade-level concepts with ease, when allowed to be challenged at an appropriate level, they were suddenly in unfamiliar territory. They were not grasping the concepts immediately. If they answered something incorrectly, it was often the first time they’d had that experience. I noticed a trend; TEARS—every single day.

Those tears were not because I was a big meanie. They were not because the work was too “hard”. Those tears were from the feeling of failure. Keep in mind, these were great students with impressive grades. They were students that loved to learn. And now, when they were being appropriately challenged at their learning level, I was hearing things that broke my heart. Things like I’m so stupid, school sucks, and I give up. The biggest one? I’m such a failure. There were trails of tears and notes from concerned parents. Not because these kids weren’t capable, but because they had never felt an academic struggle. To them, it felt like failure. I knew I had to change their mindset.

Failure is an opportunity for self-reflection and growth

I learned something valuable from the students. You see, I KNEW they were capable of so much more than they were giving themselves credit. I realized my son was capable of so much more as well. I decided we all needed a lesson in failing gracefully. We started to celebrate our fails. I made a “fail wall” in the classroom where we could write something that seemed impossible, embarrassing, or scary. Once we changed our outlook and saw things as a challenge rather than a failure, our mindset started to shift. As a group, we would discuss any failures the students wanted to share and reflect on how we could learn and grow from the situation. Every day I noticed fewer and fewer tears and more celebrations. I had students that were so excited to stop in my classroom to tell me they had a “lightbulb” moment. They would beg for the next lesson, and occasionally even be disappointed if they grasped something right away! Talk about a mindset shift!

It was challenging to hold my son accountable for the small things I would’ve typically fixed. Running to the store at 10 PM the night before a project was due because he “forgot” supplies. Having to eat the dreaded fish sticks for lunch because he forgot his cold lunch at home. Not playing outside at recess because he forgot his winter gear. If I’m perfectly honest, he came awfully close to not passing eighth grade. He waited until two weeks before the end of the year to do anything about his missing assignments. As a parent, I felt like a failure. I should’ve done more to help. I felt like I was abandoning him in a time of need. But after some self-reflection, I realized that he pulled through. He did what he needed to and was a stronger person because of it.  He was accountable for his (lack of) actions. And you know what? I doubt he will ever let things get to that point again.

Here is a crucial takeaway about failing: It’s ok; we all feel like a failure at some point. As long as we realize there is the opportunity for growth and make a change towards bettering our situation, failing gracefully can be a positive experience. Now go out there and get your fail on!

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