Thursday, January 8, 2015

Failure

As a parent and a teacher I often reflect on how these two roles intersect and are greatly influenced by each other. Lately I have been thinking a great deal about failure and how we “use” it in school as well as outside of school. I worry we might be, for lack of a better term, screwing up a generation of kids due to the way we are using and not using failure as a learning tool.

For starters, have we become overly obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves and in doing so reducing our conversations to dishonest and artificial? For example, when we give every kid a trophy or a ribbon just for trying, are we watering down accomplishments and celebrating kids’ inadequacies? While that may sound harsh, should we artificially be building kids up and telling them they are good at something they are not? In doing so do we run the risk of kids never developing coping skills to deal with failure or a situation where they are not the “best”? By falsely telling a kid they are good at something or being shielding them from failure, are we helping them in the long term?

Along those same lines, are we actually letting kids fail? Is there an environment in our houses and schools where kids can experience failure? This does not have to be soul crushing or life altering failure, but they need to fail at things. When a kid produces a poorly written piece of writing do we give them an “F” is that is deserved or do we inflate it to protect the student from the feeling of failure?  If we are watching our kids learning to ride their bikes do we run in and hold the seat before giving them a chance to fall and get back up? If a kid fails, let them fail. Stand right next to them and help move on but don’t shield them from the failure, they need it.

Another aspect of failure is the notion of celebrating failure, which has become rather popular among teachers and parents alike. However, I disagree with this idea to a point. If my kids fail at something, I don’t celebrate it nor do I encourage them to fail. Celebrating failure is telling kids failure is something to aspire to and places value on something we shouldn’t value. Instead the focus should be on getting back up and trying again. When our kids fall when we are teaching them to ride that bike, do we celebrate the skinned knees and bruises? No, we pat them on the back and encourage them to get back on that bike and keep trying. We celebrate their ability to stick with it and finally succeed. Shifting the focus off the failure and on to the “what now” is the key to making sure our students and children have the skill set to face adversity and keep going.

When kids do fail it is ok for them to feel bad about it. Failing should not be a positive experience and for those who have failed, they know this to be true. I cannot think of a time in my life where I failed and felt good about it. I hated it and it fueled to me to get better and avoid that feeling. Kids need to feel that if they are to understand how to grow and learn from those mistakes and overcome obstacles. Constantly protecting them from those negative feelings will create a false sense of confidence which will likely not serve them well in the long run.


If we are going to use failure in schools or in our homes, we need to make sure we are doing it effectively. Simply shielding kids from failure or giving them cake and ribbons when they do fail may not be the best approach. Let’s create environments where kids are safe to take risks with the potential for failure. Let them experience failure and not enjoy it but help them use that feeling to get back up and move past it. It is only through allowing kids to truly experience failure and let them learn from it that it can truly have value.