I love the first book my seventh graders read each year: Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s the students’ first foray into controversial subjects, this one being the inherent fallacies in trying to produce a utopian society. Up to this point in their lives, they have been champions of fairness. So I show them a place where everything is “fair” – a.k.a. the same – so that no one has to suffer the pain associated with wrong choices. It’s not long before kids are explaining to me why they need to be allowed to experience failure. It’s not me they need to convince, though.
My most successful students had failure as an option. You might say to me All students have failure as an option, and you’d be partially correct. Failure is a possibility for all, but not an option. Sometimes the limitations on allowing failure are self-imposed. Before coming to a school for the gifted, many of my students experienced a kind of stardom in their regular classrooms. Now that they are among a school of “stars,” the shining is less frequent. Oh, the tears not being number one can bring! I have to remind them that I am not here for them to show me what they already know. I’m here to teach, and if they master everything quickly, I’m just going to find new material that they don’t know. A student becomes successful in this program when he learns that a failure can push him to try harder the next time, but it will never bring him shame if he learns from it.
Sometimes the limitations come from parents. Much to my own children’s chagrins, I don’t hesitate to share some of their failures when conferencing with parents. I want them to see that my kids were responsible for the good choices after that failure… my kids made their futures a possibility by learning from their mistakes. In my experience, the parent who controls too tightly cripples the teen. Sure, it was painful to watch my kids make bad choices. I was there, though, with them through the consequences and definitely through the analyzation for future similar situations. Some of their decisions seemed like absolutely the opposite of what I would do, but I always looked at their intentions. If the intentions were good, I found ways to support the intentions if I couldn’t support the action.
Occasionally, prospective clients to the school will chastise me for our lack of uniforms, the fact that we still have a candy store at school, taking field trips all over the country, allowing teens to listen to their music while taking tests, letting the kids take all the electives, having game systems available for recess… having a recess in secondary school. Anywhere I vary from the public school template of secondary education, I find a critic. I assure my kids that I will fight the good fight for them as long as they are responsible with the freedoms I’ve given them. It’s my personal belief that it is better for the kids to make a choice that leads to a failure while they are still in secondary school where their parents and I can help them make better decisions than it is to let those first failures come in college or the adult life. Who’s going to guide them then? If a teen buys three candy bars a day every day for a month, knowing he has a fitness test coming up, and then vomits when running the mile, that’s a great opportunity to have the teen explore what might be causing the nausea. I’d rather they experiment with their relationship with food here than to have them go to college and try to live on Mountain Dew and ramen.
So, I guess my point is: don’t cause your child to fear failure. Instead, tell her that she will experience failures, but she is in a safe place to do that. Failures do not make her a loser. In fact, learning from those failures makes her a fighter.