The Gift of Failure

Posted by Blake Davenport - 05 September, 2017

Biking Skills - 3172380.jpg

By Blake Davenport, Director of Athletics, and Sue Samuels, Director of Fine Arts

Were you immediately successful the first time you rode a bike? How about the first time you swung a golf club or cooked a complicated recipe?

The first time any of us attempts a new task may result in failure. To turn failure into success, we must be resilient and learn from our mistakes. We move forward armed with our experience and new information, and try again.

In her book The Gift of Failure, Jessica Lahey discusses the need for allowing our children to fail, and thus, to solve their own problems.

golf.jpgArts and athletics are both great platforms for students to develop the ability to consider risks, take chances, and make choices in a supportive environment. The Gift of Failure is a book that Director of Arts, Dr. Sue Samuels, and I read over the summer because we understand that success for our students simply doesn't happen without failing along the way.

We're always looking for ways to increase this mindset while reducing the stress that occurs when failure ultimately takes place. Lahey posits that failure is the key to helping us improve. In her book, she discusses how we, as a society, are increasingly denying our children the right to fail.

Lahey also makes the point that denying failure has even worse implications on children than we might think. She explains how short-term avoidance of a mistake or fear of failure prevents children from learning the life skills they will need once they've left the house and started navigating life on their own. The book looks at how today's well-meaning yet controlling approach to raising our children actually can result in developing dependency or a sense of entitlement, the very characteristics that we are trying to avoid.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

Steve Jobs once said, “The greatest artists, like Dylan, Picasso, and Newton, risked failure. And if we want to be great, we’ve got to risk it, too.”

So why does failure cause so much stress for children as well as their parents?

seussical.jpgTeachers and coaches will tell you the biggest challenges they see that hold children back from taking risks come from the following variety of powerful psychological and emotional forces:

  • Fear of failure: children won't take a risk if they are afraid to fail
  • Perfectionism: the bar is set so high that anything less than perfection is failure
  • Need for control: taking a risk requires that control is given up
  • Lack of confidence in abilities and understanding the value of preparation: they’re not going to take a risk if they don’t think they can succeed

Our goal is to provide what can feel like a counterintuitive environment and hopefully an understanding that when you take risks, you might fail, but failure can be our greatest teacher if we are intentional about it. Failure is part of the path of the road to success.

Failure provides a child with two choices: feel for myself or learn from myself.

Failure provides a child with two choices: feel for myself or learn from myself. The growth mindset says we either win or we learn, but we don't lose. Realistically in competition there is a winner and a loser, but if we are intentional about the axiom "more is learned from a loss than a win," we still possess the growth mindset that allows us to improve.

As parents whose children are involved in both the arts and athletics, Dr. Samuels and I appreciated the following advice from The Gift of Failure, (which we realize needs to be age- and stage-dependent) from the book. We take the “we" to represent us in each of our roles, whether parent, teacher or coach:

  • When we try to prevent our children from experiencing failure—discouraging them from trying out for a play or a team, trying a new sport or instrument, or not letting our children handle their own problemswe deprive them of valuable life skills and learning opportunities.
  • Parental involvement is a vital part of a child's education, but Lahey explains there's a difference in being involved and trying to control a child's life at school. Lahey suggests the more effective approach is "autonomy-supportive" parenting, rather than "controlling" parenting.
  • The right type of praise encourages your child. The wrong type can demotivate. The best praise focuses on effort. Praise the child's behavior (representing a growth mindset), not the child (a fixed mindset). “I can see you worked so hard on this!” (you are valuing their effort) instead of “You are so smart!” (it makes them think of intelligence as a fixed quality).

In additional summer reading, I found the following quote by Dr. Jim Afremow (author of The Champion's Mind), “Children who are over-protected are led to believe that success should always be quick and easy, but that only leads to greater frustration when it’s not.”

So when our child doesn't make a team or get the lead role in the play, misses the winning free throw or strikes out with bases loaded, we, as parents, coaches and teachers, need to be intentional about allowing these experiences to help him or her learn from it, become better next time and build their confidence by learning what happened and why.

Equipping our children with experiences in resilience will help them get well beyond the "first time." And we hope your golf game improves, too!

Aside from learning from failures, discover the other components for a healthy and challenging education in our eBook, Will School Challenge Your Child?

Will School Challenge Your Child Download Link

Topics: failure, mindset, parents, resilience, parent partnership

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