Monday, June 29, 2015

"If at First You Don't Succeed, You are Running About Average"*

One neat thing about little kids is they don't understand grades. An "F" to them is no worse than an "A"; but, of course, what they usually receive are smiley faces. We don't want a small child to have any failures. But as children move through schools and life they are going to experience things not going as expected. The lesson of failure is not the failing but the trying again, the improvement, the mastery. So this post is about failing and, more importantly, not letting failure conquer effort.

I use to tell children, who were shocked when I asked them to do something again, that school was a place to learn. I don't expect you to know everything, I would assure them. If you knew everything you would not need to be in school.  But you can't move on until you accomplish this. 

Too much bubble wrap not only doesn't prepare a child for life, but it almost guarantees the inability to deal with future failure.  Looking at the number of teen suicides, drug use, and school drop-outs indicates that many young people aren't sure how to pick themselves up if they are knocked down by events.

Sports once did a pretty good job of encouraging effort and practice while acknowledging that there are winners and losers. Michael Jordan said, "I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games, missed the game winning shot 26 times. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed." 

So how do we teach children how to "try, try again"? Parents should encourage children to work in one area in which a child may be gifted or loves doing, and another that gives them problems. Both efforts will teach them something. In the talented area they will learn "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." In the problem area they will learn that yes, effort will make you better. The talented artist may tackle ice skating to improve gross motor skills. The talented baseball player may need tutoring to improve in math. Parents can help a child learn to keep trying if they keep a few things in mind.

  • Being loved is not dependent on being a star athlete, a star student, or a star anything.
  • When something is difficult we need to slow down, and break activities into smaller steps. Sometimes we need to take a break, rest, eat, just walk about for a bit, or even wait to attempt it when we are a bit more mature.
  • Everything a child does is not great. Overpraising often negates the joy in being praised. It also may encourage a child to continue doing something that then becomes annoying. Too many children decide very early in life they must be the always be center of attention, because they were told they were the greatest dancers, singers or storytellers when they were four. 
  • Some things that must be done in life aren't fun, entertaining, or fair. Tolerating the whining and complaining teaches a child that effort is not to be expected. 
  • Children often rotate through a number of activities before they find one they stick with. That is to be expected - after all they are new to this world.  
  • Talent is not just demonstrated in group activities. A child may be good at art, with animals, or collecting bugs. A talent does not have to be something a child can make money with when she grows up. 
  • Role models are important. Has you child seen you attempt something difficult? Have they seen you enjoy something outside of work or family? How do your react to failure? 
  • Children's books have wonderful stories of coming back from failure. Make sure you child hears or reads some great biographies about people such as Thomas Edison, Beethoven, Nelson Mandela or Helen Keller. Many children's fiction books also have heroes or heroines overcoming obstacles to achieve success.
Remember a child who has a learning problem needs an activity in their life where they experience easy success. A child for whom everything appears easy needs to try something difficult. 

All children need to learn how to face failure and success. A wise man once said, "The person has not yet been born who cannot do more than he thinks he can." It is a magical moment when a child discovers that she can do more that she ever thought she could.

* title quote by  M.H. Alderson  

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