A cynical colleague once cautioned me about using the word “failure” when discussing children. “Challenge,” he said would be more soothing. Becky wasn’t failing to meet expectations and getting a D in the class, She was facing challenges and if she would only live up to her potential, etc. It was only a semantic feint but one that reveals both the residual muck of the so-called “Self-Esteem Movement” and, more important, our apparent lack of respect for our children. Becky, of course, knew exactly where she stood. She needed to do her homework and study.
Becky certainly knew where she stood when she was in first-grade and the teacher put her in the papayas (which was, wink-wink, the kids who didn’t read as well as the kumquats). It wasn’t exactly a secret which fruit group read, counted, and scrawled the best letters, any more than it was a secret who did the best tricks on the recycled Brazilian wood play set outside. Becky didn’t need the disguise; that was for her parents. She just needed the teacher’s encouragement to hang in there and keep working; she’d be a kumquat soon enough, and if not, well there are other fruits. From the moment our sons and daughters waddle into the world of other children, they almost always know where they stand.
Becky was lucky to have such a good teacher. Maybe he’d read the studies that reveal an entire generation (Let’s call it the, I feel really good about myself but I can’t add or find Pakistan on a map generation.) of Americans whose self-esteem is so elevated that they believe they know things they don’t. Becky’s first Little League coach was good too. He knew that when she got her first hard ground ball at shortstop, the “Great Fielder” trophy from last year’s tee-ball banquet wouldn’t help much. What did help was getting clipped in the jaw with the ball and getting right back on the field. When you fall or fail, you get right back up and try it again.
I don’t know a single accomplished adult who hasn’t failed often. Yet, when we become parents our instinct to protect our children can so overwhelm us that we seek ways to shield them from learning the very lesson that offers the best protection—falling and getting back up. We send them to schools where they are “not allowed to fail,” where their every talent and attribute is celebrated. And if they come home discouraged? We call the school. Our kids get certificates for showing up but not for doing something really well. What would happen to the ‘self-esteem’ of the kids who didn’t get an award? In forty years of teaching I never met a child who bought that ‘everyone wins’ snake oil.
Becky gets why she isn’t at the top of her ninth grade math class and it isn’t because she “doesn’t test well,” or the teacher doesn’t understand her “learning style.” It’s because she isn’t very good at math and would rather be reading or painting or playing ball. And anyway, her grade is filled with mean girls and the school won’t do anything about it. We aren’t paying all this money so she can come home miserable every day. The problem is that those other girls don’t feel good about themselves, that’s why there’s beer at their parties. And what, by the way, is the school going to do about that?
Ok, this is a bit hyperbolic, but I’m betting that some of it sounds familiar. Becky and her friends do thrive on encouragement and success. As parents—and teachers—we should work hard to help them find out what they love and then support those things with all our hearts. Our children need to know we believe in them, but if they’re going to believe in us, we need to be honest with them and respect their intelligence. No baby talk, no fruit groups, no excuses, no suing the school.
Our children look to us to gauge how they’re doing and how to function in the world. More than look to us, they watch us. Ever have a fight with your husband or wife? No yelling, just one of those run of the mill quarrels in another room so the kids wouldn’t know. They knew anyway, right? They don’t miss much about their parents and they want the truth, including what we think they’re good at. If we try to fool them, they’ll look elsewhere to figure things out.
Do you remember that day when your little boy was learning to walk and fell hard on the pavement? Shock, maybe pain, then…he looked at you to see what it all meant. I’m betting that if you leapt up and raced over to him looking terrified he cried as if he’d been snapped in half. If—far more calmly than you felt perhaps—you walked over and lifted him up with a smile, he probably didn’t cry much at all and you taught him something about falling down and getting back up. What we learn about falling down and getting back up goes a long way to define the kind of person we become—which is to say what we learn about failure is what makes us successful.
As for Becky, she’s the only girl on the high school baseball team and she’s hitting .333. That means she fails to get a hit twice out of every three times she comes to bat and which, for those of you who don’t follow baseball, is Hall of Fame hitting. For those of you who do know baseball, you know that it’s hard as hell and that you can call striking out a “challenge” if you want, but it’s really just striking out.
Jon Maksik, Ph.D., served as headmaster of the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, from 1987 until his retirement in 2006.
Photo: Michal Rubin