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:
Learning from failure
October, 2006
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.


Your turn: Thoughts?


The Mistress of the Dark said...

Saying hi from Michele's. If I quit after failing I wouldn't have my driver's license. Taking the test made me so nervous that I screwed up the first two times.

I live in fear of having to take the drivers exam over again. (I can't parallel park to save my life)

scrappintwinmom said...

Wow. This brought a tear to my eyes. My husband and I were discussing this topic eventually, we'll be comforting our girls through times like your boy went through. Something tells me that its going to be harder on me than it will on them. But that's the problem with parenthood, isn't it? Sometimes, you have to step back and let them experience things on their own. Great post!

kenju said...

Carmi, you are already doing what needs to be done to prepare your children for their lives beyond mom and dad. I failed diving when I was about 12. I hated getting my head underwater and couldn't bring myself to dive head first off the board. I could jump (and hold my nose), but that wasn't acceptable to the class leader, so I failed. I got over it, and so will your little one.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post Carmi... sounds like you are doing everything you can to prepare your kids for the day you have to let them fly on their own. They are lucky and I'm sure one day they'll pass your "expertise" on to their children.

Catherine said...

We create this sort of situation, partly, by setting it up so they get rewarded. In some cultures the idea of giving children a badge and praise for passing a level would be rather foreign. In these cultures, they learn the rewards of success for itself. Your wee guy knew how much he had learned - until the badge moment came and he was told, in effect, it wasn't "enough".
I hope he does go back for more swinning lessons. But even more important, that he gets in the pool when it's not lesson time and just has a lot of fun in the water.

Oh yes, Michele sent me

Anonymous said...

oh, carmi... there were many times when i tried and failed at something and i wish my parents had been as loving and supportive as you and your wife are. you are rasing three really great kids.

last time from michele's tonight.

srp said...

I failed a math test in second grade and learned to pay attention to the instructions. I failed an eye exam in sixth grade and discovered that life didn't come to an end simply because I had glasses. I failed my first anatomy practical in medical school and learned that I was no longer one of the few 4.0 students in college, but one of 200 students with a 4.0 and I had to work harder. I still fail at things. It means I'm still learning.

If we never failed, how could we know what success was or more important, how could we ever appreciate it?

HRH Courtney, Queen of Everything said...

It took me three tries to pass beginner's level swimming lessons. I hope the little man hangs in there. He's not alone.

Anonymous said...

You can tell your little man that there are many many kids out there who get stuck in one level; more kids than not. It is a flaw in the swimming program itself (I could talk for hours about this).

You can also tell him that there are lots of kids out there who never complete a swim program (like myself) but go on to become amazing speed swimmers. I know many an Olympian who never made it past AQ5/6 because they got stuck at that level and tried speed swimming to increase their strength.

Personally, after 15 years of teaching / swimming / developing programs / coaching, I prefer programs that are value based instead of goal / achievement based.

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of the time, those moments are harder on us than they are on our kids. That's definitely true with S and I, anyway.

Hang in there, both of you. It really will be ok. It would actually be worse for him to easily succeed at everything early on, because he'd never develop the habit of "trying," and would have it even tougher later on in life. I know of what I speak, believe me!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Carmi, this is so lovely.

I like that you didn't tie it all up in a neat package at the end.

I think our familes would get along very well. Too bad London is so far away.

Anonymous said...

Carmi, one thing that I appreciate about my own parents is that they let me try and fail..when I did fail, they were right there to love me well. That lesson is priceless to a child. I feel like my parents did the best they could to prepare me for life...and then they needed to let me go live it. I only hope that I can do the same for my three as they grow. Love goes along way.

DeAnn said...

You're such a great writer. That was very touching!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Carmi.... You made me cry. Just this past weekend, DH and I were watching Baby J play with a balloon. Something so simple, yet he found such delight in it. I was crying just watching him. I said to my sweet husband, "Wow, they sure don't tell you that after you have a child, you can weep over the simplest thing." And we just smiled at eachother through our tears.

FWIW, I'm so happy that you allowed your son to "fail". I feel that too often in our society (what with no more "F"s given in school, and the constant overhandling of our children's egos) that we are so busy making sure that our kids *always* feel good, that sometimes we eliminate or try to erase the feelings of failure or inadequacy that we all have experienced. And IMHO, this is a great disservice to our children.

They need to experience pain to know true joy. To fail to know what real success and striving feels like. To be humiliated to learn humility, and to be cheated out of something, so they learn the value of honesty.

As hard as it was to hold your crying boy, you did a great thing by letting him "fail" and telling him to try harder. You have prepared him for real life. Without you. And that is all we can do as parents.

Love this story, Carmi. :)

Anonymous said...

I imagine I will experience similar emotions soon, as my son turns five in March. Sometimes I think the hardest thing must be to know what failure feels like to oneself and then to see one's own child, the one person a parent can least bare to see suffer, feel that same pain.

Who knew parenthood would bring such a complexity of difficulty prior to the actual experience?