School’s In Session: Time to Fail

With schools in many parts of the country in session for a couple of weeks and all kids back in school this week, learning is—or should be—on top of all parents’ minds. I spent the last month talking to parents and kids about going back to school, and one of the things they’re very concerned about is performance. In fact, almost too much. For some kids, especially those starting high school, the level of anxiety was particularly high. Why? Because they’re already concerned about their performance and how that’s going to affect their ability to get into college.

Some of the parents I spoke to were busy micromanaging activities, looking to see how things would play on college applications. There wasn’t a lot of joy about learning, to tell you the truth. The focus was totally on results.

Getting into college is more competitive than it’s been, but by putting the emphasis on results, we do our kids a disservice. Learning is a process, and by shortchanging—or short circuiting—that process we actually do more harm than good.

Consider the kid I spoke to who had wanted to play the trumpet for years. His parents finally decided that last summer he could take lessons because it didn’t interrupt all his school year activities. The kid quit after six lessons, frustrated because, “I wasn’t good.” Of course he wasn’t good. He’s 14 and playing an instrument that takes years and years of practice to attain proficiency. Yes, it can be frustrating, but what’s more frustrating is that his parents let him quit.

I called a friend who teaches high school music who told me that this in an increasingly common occurrence. Kids get upset and drop an instrument. It’s such a pervasive thing in this friend’s school that creating a traditional band can be difficult. Parents shell out the money for an instrument that is abandoned in virtually no time.

The same thing happens on the athletic field, and in the classroom. I’ve talked to many teachers who tell me that more and more kids just give up, and it takes a herculean effort to get them engaged again. It’s somewhat easier in academics because the clear need for a strong GPA is something parents understand.

But what’s the real cost? It’s that we aren’t teaching kids to embrace the process of learning. And that process includes failure. To play a musical instrument, one simply has to stink at it for a long time to gain mastery. Some kids are more gifted than others and may pick it up faster, but they still have to practice. Same thing with athletics, no one picks up a tennis racquet one day and wins the U.S. Open the other.

The lessons of failure are essential for developing into a healthy adult.

  • Keep trying. The only way to get better is to try again.
  • Advancement isn’t linear. Some days you’ll do really well and others you’ll stink. That’s the way it goes. Keep trying, though, and your advancement will get better overall.
  • Goals are milestones, not endpoints. Can you play a little better today? Can you run a little farther this week than last? With each goal you make, you can be inspired to set new ones.
  • Progress is incremental. No one learns or masters anything overnight. Learn to celebrate the little steps you make on the way to your goals.
  • Process is everything. It is the here and now of living. What matters is trying and making a commitment to working. Every high point, success or triumph will pass, but the process of learning and growing is a lifelong skill.

As the coach Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get back up.” The Olympic athlete Carl Lewis said when asked how he had competed for nearly 20 years, said, “Remembering that you have wins and losses along the way. I don’t take either one too seriously.”

So, no, of course, we don’t want the kids in our lives to fail. In fact, we want them to thrive and grow. But if we want them to fully appreciate the successes they achieve, they must also embrace the process that got them there.

As you help your kids move into the school year, the best gift you can give them is to help them understand the role of process and redefine “failure” as “learning.” The point is to keep going and growing. If the process is strong, the results will take care of themselves.

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