As a young child, I was extremely shy. I hated the spotlight. My horror at being cast as the lead in my school’s Grade 3 production of Snow White was surpassed only by the embarrassment I felt when Prince Charming bestowed an awakening kiss upon my cheek. My mother still recalls that moment when she sat in the audience convinced I would run screaming from the stage. I did not run, however, and managed to get through the performance with all the grace and aplomb an 8-year-old could muster. I will add, however, that a child star was not born that day.
When I think back to that time, I’m often struck by a disconnect between what I was likely capable of doing versus what I did. I was a fast runner yet didn’t join the track team; I was a talented musician yet never wanted the solo part; I often knew the answer in class yet kept my hand down for fear of being seen as too smart. It was a happy yet somewhat unfulfilled existence but one that I know many children (particularly girls) experience.
I definitely had a competitive streak, but quietly and only within myself. My peers’ public displays of competitiveness filled me with awe and admiration but also left me perplexed. How could they put themselves out there like that? Didn’t they fear losing? What gave them such remarkable audacity?
In retrospect, I think my fear of public competition stemmed from my belief that the opposite of winning was losing, and to lose meant to fail. As a bright but shy child with perfectionist tendencies, failure meant that I was lesser than. And who wants to feel lesser than if you don’t have to? So the easiest and safest solution was simply to remove myself from the competition.
We see that same fear of losing vicariously expressed in the never-ending “thanks for participating” certificates and trophies that we bestow upon our children, often in sports or academics. Please do not misunderstand: I believe in building children’s self-esteem. And the last thing I would ever espouse is competition so ruthless that it tears down rather than builds up a child’s belief in his or her own abilities. But I think we deprive children of important life lessons when we try to ensure they never lose. And I know we do them the greatest disservice when any experience of losing is followed with the perhaps well meaning but nonetheless damaging, “It wasn’t fair you didn’t win” or “I know you were better than she was” message from us as parents. Such messages simply serve to make victims of our children, and deny them the opportunity to reflect constructively on their loss.
If we encourage our children only to pursue what they know to be a “sure thing” they will never develop resilience or what University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth refers to as “grit”. In her recently published book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, Duckworth argues that grittiness is more predictive of success than either talent or I.Q. and it makes sense. Neither talent nor I.Q. is enough if a child cannot withstand failure and doesn’t persevere when faced with difficulties. Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck saw this play out in her research that found that bright girls were more likely than boys to give up when presented with challenging math problems. In fact, the higher a girl’s I.Q., the more likely she was to stop trying.
Unless children learn to push through adversity and bounce back from failure, they are in for a very rocky ride. Without grit or resilience, imagine what will happen to them later on in life if they aren’t accepted into the university of their choice, or don’t get the job they interviewed for, or are passed over for that promotion at work. Lasting frustration, misplaced anger, anxiety and even depression are definite risks down the road.
So how do we encourage our children, particularly our girls, to put themselves in the game? How do we teach them that failure is a part of life? Well, first and foremost, we must model gracious recognition and applause for those who win. We must also model a willingness to admit our own failures and to demonstrate that there is no shame in trying and failing to succeed. We must let them fail – plain and simple. Yes, I’ll say it again: We must let them fail. And in so doing, we must resist the urge to protect them from the inevitable (but transient, I promise you) pain they will experience upon losing. And finally, we must never ever minimize their pain by undermining the competition. (That’s what happens when we make comments like, “Oh, I know that coach has favourites” or “Who wants to be class president anyway.”)
When I look back at my own journey from shy, reticent child to more confident, less risk-adverse adult, it’s good to acknowledge that the change didn’t happen overnight. Time, age, mentors, and life experiences – all those things mattered. But the most important factor effecting change was a transformation in the way I came to view failure. Over time, I began to realize that a great opportunity for growth emerged every time I failed. In this way, I began to embody Nelson Mandela’s powerful statement: “I never lose. I either win or learn.” As soon as I stopped avoiding failure, the world opened up to me.
As Trafalgar’s teachers work with our girls this year, and as you continue the joyful challenge of parenting your daughter, let’s resolve together to reject the binary view that we either win or lose. Let’s encourage our girls to aim high, take their best shot, and see what happens. If they win, let’s celebrate with them. If they don’t win, let’s applaud the courage they demonstrated and help them learn from the experience. If we can do this, our girls will never lose. They’ll either win or learn.