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Why Is Failure Not An Option?

If you want to succeed, you need to be willing to fail.

While catching up on-line recently, I noticed a lot of posts about football season starting. The pictures of friends with their little Pop Warner stars, and Soccer stars, got me thinking about school and sports, and brought back some good and not so good memories.

I was never a jock growing up.  I participated in sports, but had other areas of interest that took my focus.  For example, I really enjoyed playing soccer.  But because I was not a typical jock, and therefore did not fit in, I allowed another girl on the varsity team to intimidate me into quitting. When that happened, I felt like a failure because I let the opinion of a bully spoil something I enjoyed. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it was a learning experience for me, one that I used to grow and change. I regretted leaving the team, but from then on I chose to value my participation in other activities based not on what others thought, but on whether I was really doing well and having fun.  After that, I became a much happier and I think better person.

A recent article in The Atlantic titled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” by Lori Gottlieb really made me think. The entire article was about how parents try so hard to make their kids happy, that they are actually making them miserable. It also talked a lot about allowing kids to fail.  As with the whole Free Range Parenting style I’ve been exploring, the ‘letting my kids fail’ thing has really sparked my interest.

People fear that it’s bad for a kids self esteem if they lose.  Actually, according to many psychologists it’s not!  It’s good for a kid to experience some kind of failure, especially when they’re young.  It allows them to understand that they will be okay, and the world will still continue even if they don’t win or succeed at everything they try.  In fact, the only way never to fail is to avoid doing anything you don't already know; failure is a crucial element of learning, and learning is what kids are meant to be doing most of the time!  Dealing with childhood setbacks is how children know how to handle failure productively. Think about it: would you rather have your child’s first experience with failure be on the ball field when they’re six, or in a lecture hall at college, or worse, while they’re doing something dangerous like driving a car?

Unfortunately, for kids growing up today, failure is not an option.  Every kid who plays a sport gets a medal, trophy, or award of some kind at the end of the season.  There are no winners or losers in games.  In some instances, all competitiveness is gone.  Part of that is because kids start playing sports at age three now instead of in middle school.  And part of it is that no one wants to see his or her kids upset.

Part of learning about failure also comes from playing with other kids.  One of the main reasons I joined a couple of local moms groups was because I wanted my kids to have social interactions with other kids outside of preschool.  Learning to share and resolve conflicts is something kids can only do when they are given the chance.  And that chance only comes when parents are willing to step back and let them work things out on their own once in a while.

Creative play is such an important part of childhood!  Too much of childhood is scheduled away from an early age now.  Too many kids don’t have the opportunity to do things like riding a bike, playing outside with friends, exploring the back yard.  Those are all things that kids need to experience.

I feel children are over-scheduled today.  I’m not against putting kids in sports or other activities, because I think those activities help build self-esteem and people skills and teach teamwork.  I’m against is over doing it.  My kids don’t need to be in three sports and two social clubs when they’re four years old, because there will be plenty of time for that later.  What they need is time to be a kid.

We made a conscious choice that we would offer our children the choice of one sport or activity per season.  Recently my older son has started swimming lessons.  On his way to the pool the other day, he complained to my husband that he was afraid to try swimming in the deep water for the first time. "I can't do it," he explained, "because I don't know how!"  We told him that that's exactly why he should do it!

Sure enough, when lesson time came, he not only went in over his head (with his swimming teacher), but he dunked under and even swam to the bottom of the pool! The look of pride on his face as he explained his accomplishments later that day was wonderful. 

And it taught him a valuable lesson:  you won’t know what you’re capable of unless you are willing to try.  Something I hope will stay with both our children as they grow.


malcolm nichols August 08, 2011 at 10:45 AM
Here here, well said.

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