Learning from failureYour turn: Thoughts?
By Carmi Levy
Failure has a funny way of introducing itself to a child. And despite a parent’s best effort to cushion the blow, it isn’t always enough.
As I walked with our three kids into London’s Canada Games Aquatic Centre on a cold and gray October afternoon for their final swim lesson of the term, we talked about not expecting too much, about how proud my wife and I were of their effort since starting lessons a few weeks earlier. As a former lifeguard, it’s always been important to me that our kids become comfortable in and around the water. And whatever happened that day, I wanted them to know that we cared about much more than whether they were promoted to the next level.
As they got changed, I coached them against getting their hopes up too high. We’d been subtly and none-too-subtly saying pretty much the same things all week long, trying to prepare them in case things didn’t go their way that afternoon. And it was our youngest son who was the most adamant of all that he would be happy no matter what happened.
“I’ll be OK, Dad,” he insisted. “I know I’m a good swimmer, and I don’t need a badge.”
“So you won’t be upset if you repeat this level?” I asked carefully.
“No Dad,” he said, slowly and confidently, reinforcing his words by locking his eyes onto mine.
Barely an hour later, our six-year-old came back empty-handed. He had made solid progress this term, but he still needed to work on building confidence while swimming on his own. Just a couple more tick marks on his progress card and he’d be there. But six-year-olds don’t appreciate perspective and context all that well: all he heard was that he had failed.
“I quit,” he insisted, as he sadly walked away from his instructor for the last time. His progress card was filled with words of praise for all of his accomplishments this term. But it didn’t have that all-important badge attached. “I’m never going back for swim lessons again,” he barely blurted out before dissolving in tears. I wrapped him in a towel and held him tight.
The irony of that moment was that my wife and I have never been more proud of him. In a few short weeks, he transformed from a virtual non-swimmer with a consistent fear of the water and mistrust of instructors to a kid who couldn’t wait for his lesson to begin. He learned to enjoy being in the pool, and he regularly did virtually everything the instructor asked. He far exceeded our loftiest hopes for him.
But at that moment, he didn’t have a badge, and his older brother and sister, who had passed their respective levels, did. He said it wasn’t fair, and in many respects, it wasn’t: he worked just as hard as they did, and he got nothing in return.
Since that fateful day, we’ve continued to repeat our already oft-repeated message that not everyone makes it on the first try. We’ve shared stories about the value of persistence. We’ve explained how failure is often a good thing because it teaches us to try harder next time. I’ve told him how many times I failed to advance in my own childhood swimming lessons, and how I learned to swim at the ripe old age of 10. He’s slowly learning that life isn’t always fair, and that we don’t always get everything that we want.
Eventually, we’re certain he’ll get over it. Time has a way of softening the edges out of childhood disappointment. But I won’t soon forget watching the first moment in my son’s life when he strove to succeed and failed to do so. Nor will I forget how I wanted to make it all better for him, and couldn’t. As much as I wished I could wave my hands and make the sadness go away, I knew it was just as important for me to stand back and let him learn about disappointment first-hand.
In a society that seems to value only the tangible trappings of success, the more subtle achievements of incremental progress are often ignored. This is virtually impossible to explain to a little guy who thinks he didn’t measure up, but we’ll keep trying because that’s how he’ll learn and grow. Just as we encourage our kids to never give up, we must always challenge ourselves to find new ways to explain the unexplainable, to gradually help them explore more of the chaotic world around them.
After he fell asleep, I tip-toed into his room and kissed his forehead. I wondered what he was dreaming about, and hoped it was a happy dream.
Given enough time, he’ll no doubt forget this speed bump of childhood. Amid all the success and achievement that my wife and I hope lies in his future, we know that he’ll also experience disappointments that will make this one seem relatively insignificant. But everything is significant to you when you’re six years-old. And going through it for the first time means this is only the first scar of many to come.
They didn’t tell us this when we decided to have children. Then again, they likely didn’t tell our parents this, either. Or our grandparents, for that matter. And even if all of our ancestors had been better informed about the challenges of parenthood, I doubt that knowing all this in advance would change anything anyway. We seem to be writing and rewriting the parental manual on an almost ad hoc basis.
As I held his crying little form and helped wipe the tears away from his face, it dawned on me that a parent’s role won’t always be to simply provide protective comfort. At some point, I’ll have to let him go as well. And I hope I don’t fail to do all the right things to prepare him for that day.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Little man learns from failure
I wrote this a couple of months back when our kids finished their most recent set of swimming lessons. I often write about the milestones of our children's lives. Sometimes, I even write about their disappointments. I hope you enjoy it: