Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
I grew up in the "Everybody gets a trophy at the end of soccer season!" generation. I feel I have to tell you, it’s overrated. I have also worked in environments where every kid is told "You did great!", regardless of their actual level of performance. And I see problems there, too.
For many educators and parents, failure is practically a dirty word. For some time now, the caretakers of our society have been on positivity kick, and I'm mostly not taking issue with that. After all, we need to raise our children in positive environments, relying on encouragement and staying away from negative reinforcement.
What concerns me is setting the bar low, and pretending our kids never fail. What happens when we erase the reality of failure from our children's lives?
When you brush failure under the rug, you devalue perseverance.
It can be hard to talk to a one another about our failures. I also admit that it is especially painful (at least for me) to tell a child "You didn't pass today." But something good can come out of such discussions.
Sometimes we fail and try again, and again... and again, and finally succeed. That's called perseverance, and it's a wonderful thing. Real acts of perseverance can only come from deep confidence in ourselves.
Yes, it can be hard to fail my students on a test, but I won't always be around. A ‘great job!’ and a pat on the back from me are no replacement for honest failure, followed by perseverance, eventually leading to genuine success.
If we never fail kids (or never admit they failed), how can we congratulate them on their perseverance?
The emotional tools needed to deal with failure are learned.
Imagine you're a freshman in college, sitting in your least favorite class. You know, the one you have nightmares about. The professor hands back a graded assignment. At the top, next to your name, is your grade, and it's not pretty. Maybe your math was flawed, or your writing poor.
If you were there in that seat, ask yourself, what would your emotional reaction be? I'd say if you’ve experienced honest failure before, you're less likely to have an outbreak of internal hysteria. You might not feel like a million bucks either, but you will at least be able to say to yourself, "Wow, this is bad. I'm really unhappy with this. But this one failure does not define me. It is not the final say. I've made mistakes before, and I've moved on from them. I can move on from this one, too."
Unless you believe that your children will always be perfect at everything on the first try, and never makes mistakes, you have to believe that your children will eventually experience failure. Some people say we have a duty to protect our children emotionally from their failures. I say if failure is coming, let's prepare children to deal with it in an appropriate way, starting at a young age, in a supportive environment.
Passing everyone all the time cheapens success.
I use the word cheap in two different senses.
First, I mean cheap in that it teaches kids that success costs nothing. When the bar is set low, and kids pass without ever being challenged, they learn that success is easy. All the "hard work" business grown-ups talk about must be for some other kid, because they always pass no problem. Eventually, even a child with the most wholesome of motivations will work less hard when it becomes clear that they can always succeed without putting in their full effort.
Secondly, I mean cheap in this sense: Always getting a pass makes success feel less meaningful. Would a child feel good putting on a black belt they hardly earned? Maybe, and I would never dispute that positive self-esteem is important. But the most powerful, unshakable self-esteem comes from accomplishments of substance. The kind where we know, deep down, we really earned it.
“Failure” can mean different things in different situations. For a school teacher, it might mean giving a kid a low grade on a certain assignment or in certain subject when that’s the grade they earned. For parents, it might just be admitting that a child tried something and it didn't really work out. Maybe that something is as minor as a collapsed Lego structure (the humanity! I hope they had fire escapes...), or as major as an afterschool activity that has so far turned out to be relatively fruitless.
I'm not saying we should create negative environments, full of criticism, constantly highlighting our children’s failures. Instead, I'm saying we should set challenging expectations, where failure is one possible outcome, an outcome that is always framed as temporary.
Many kids really struggle to pass tests in my karate class. Yet, for the reasons I've just listed (and more), I refuse to set the bar low. And sometimes when a child fails, a wonderful thing happens. They don't give up, they persevere, and their eventual success is even more meaningful.