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May 11, 2018

Is Failure Really Okay?

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Fail big.  Fail hard.  Fail bravely.  Isn’t that what we tell students?  We inspire with quotes from famous athletes, legendary inventors, and successful business leaders whose failures led to eventual success.  We tell our girls to take risks, be daring, step outside their comfort zone.  We encourage them to take a chance in spite of the risks.  And when they do?  Well, according to our students, that’s where we adults have a bit of work to do.  You see, we may tell them it’s okay to fail, but when they fall flat on their face – and every single one of them surely will – I’m hearing that the response we deliver isn’t always the supportive one they’re expecting.

I think the problem originates in how we define failure.  When a student misses the net, or forgets her lines, or sings a note off-key, that’s acceptable.  “You did your best.  It’s all about the learning.  Next time, you’ll get it right.”  Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s what we tend to say.  We’re supportive.  We demonstrate our belief in a growth mindset.  And we encourage them to try again.

But what happens when they fail in other ways?  What happens when the failure involves poor judgment? Or an act of sheer stupidity? Oh, yes.  Otherwise intelligent teens can act in incredibly stupid ways.  How do we respond then?  Writing as a parent who encountered my fair share of those moments as I often gently guided and sometimes physically herded my daughter through childhood and adolescence, I admit that it wasn’t always easy to respond to her more “colourful” failures with thoughtful and reflective wisdom.  Usually, the words, “What were you thinking?” or “Was your brain truly sucked out of your head?” reverberated inside my skull.  (I tried to keep them as “inside-my-head” thoughts.) And of course, the reality is, she wasn’t thinking.  Like all children and teens, her still-maturing frontal cortex wasn’t helping her to pause, reflect and make good choices.  Rather, her amygdala was off to the races, encouraging her to chat online rather than work on a boring essay, or causing her to overreact to a friendship slight, or promising her that it was a really, really great idea to stay out past curfew because…what could possibly go wrong?

The reality is, teens don’t always think things through, and they’re not always in control of their emotions.  They take risks we wish they wouldn’t.  And sometimes those risks result in failures that are messy.   Not neat like the acceptable, “Gosh, I didn’t make the school play.”  But messy.  Really messy.  So what do we do then?  How do we manage our reaction without completely undermining the broader message that it’s okay to fail?  Because if the message is, “It’s okay to fail…but only on my terms,” then as adults we’re seen as hypocritical or disingenuous.  And that’s a recipe for a damaged relationship.

Two books resonated with me both as a parent and as an educator:  Barbara Coloroso’s Kids Are Worth It and Anthony Wolf’s Get Out of My Life but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall.  Together, they guided me through my daughter’s early years, reassured me that I wasn’t crazy when we hit the ‘tweens’, and bolstered my resolve to parent gently but firmly through adolescence.  I still draw on their wisdom as Head of School when those messy failures in all their technicolour glory come knocking at my office door.

Over the years, they’ve helped consolidate my philosophy of parenting and supporting students into a fairly consistent set of beliefs and actions that seem to work fairly well.  What are some of my key take aways?  Number one:  Don’t rescue your daughter from non-catastrophic failures because if you do, you inadvertently send the message that you don’t have faith in her ability to handle life’s problems.  (Thank you Barbara Coloroso for that nugget of wisdom.)  A close second:  Always defer the “big talk” after an incident until no one is hysterical, no one is exhausted, and no one is drunk.  (I’m referring to the teenager here, but I suppose the same can apply equally to the adults involved.)  Number three:  Even good kids can do bad things.  It happens.  Particularly as they navigate the tween and teen years and traverse unchartered territory, trying to figure out which way to turn.  They may do bad things, and we would be wise to separate the act from the child.

This brings me to the point I think is most important.  As adults, we need to demonstrate the ability to move on.  The ability to let failure go.   The ability to see our children with fresh eyes as they grow and mature.  What do I mean by this?  I mean that we must recognize that children and teens move along a continuum of maturation.  They are not the same person at point A as they are at point B.  They make mistakes, hopefully grow, and move on.  They make another mistake, grow some more, and keep on going.  Just as her height changes, so do other facets of who she is.  We are well advised as parents and educators to take a fresh look from time to time in order to see her for who she is in that moment.  We need to resist the natural inclination to define her by the past, instead, allowing her to move beyond past failures.

I’ll give you an example.  Many years ago, I had a young girl in my class whom I’ll call Cathy.  (Not her real name).  She was a big girl – loud, brash, and strong.  A definite bull in a china shop.  She arrived in my class in September with a reputation for bad behaviour that was as big as she was tall.  All the teachers warned me about her.  Even other parents shared tales of Cathy’s past misbehaviours.  And indeed, Cathy initially lived up to her reputation.  She did behave unkindly towards other girls.  Her size allowed her to intimidate.  And her guard was always up, just waiting for a fight.

Over the course of that school year, Cathy and I spent a lot of time together talking about how to navigate friendships.  She worked with the guidance counsellor and learned strategies to manage her emotions.  Her mother and I talked weekly (sometimes daily) about finding ways to set Cathy up for success.  And over time, things improved.  Cathy made friends, learned how to manage disagreements better, and even showed her potential to be a leader.

Unfortunately, many students and even some parents and teachers failed to notice Cathy’s growth.  When an argument happened in the halls and Cathy was nearby, assumptions of guilt were made.  If a disagreement arose involving Cathy and another girl, teachers seemed to give the other girls’ perspective more airtime and viewed it more favourably.  Simply put, Cathy couldn’t escape the label of troublemaker, and expressed frustration that no one seemed to notice how much she had changed.

Unfortunately for Cathy, she had failed not on the soccer pitch or in the school play, but in the arena of social behaviour.  And that, it appears, is a transgression not easily forgiven.  All our adult platitudes about moving on from failure must have rung hollow in Cathy’s ears.  Despite the growth she’d shown, and the work she’d done to change for the better, she appeared doomed to live in the shadow of her past.

I think of Cathy from time to time, wondering how she’s now doing as a young adult, hoping that her inherent strength and sheer force of personality are serving her well in a society that can use more strong-willed women with fearless, clear voices.  I think of her when I feel that all-too-easy-inclination to typecast a student because of things that happened in the past.  And I think of her when I’m having a tough conversation with a student who’s made a bad choice and needs to hear that they will not always be defined by that moment.

Each and every one of our girls needs to know that failure happens.  Sometimes she won’t make the team, or earn the scholarship, or win the debate.  And yes, sometimes she won’t bring her personal best to the table.  Emotions, immaturity, jealousy, fear, anger, past experiences – these things may cloud her judgment and contribute to a moment when she’ll fail big and fail hard.  And while such failures should and do have consequences, one of them shouldn’t be a lifetime reliving the past.

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