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Allow Your Children to Fail if You Want Them to Succeed

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Excerpt from chapter 9, “Risk Failure: Succeed in Extracurricular Life and Socially”

Amy’s story was an unhappy one. A wonderful yet shy aspiring actress, she wanted to try out for the lead in the school play. Her parents, concerned that the lead would go to another, persuaded her to withdraw “to protect her from embarrassment.” This had been a pattern.

Some years later, Amy is still afraid to try anything unless she is sure she will succeed. She remarked last year “There’s that song: ‘if you get a chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you’ll dance.’ Well, I sat it out and I’ll never know what it felt like to dance.” She added, “Even those A+ grades I received for essays… I feel like they weren’t really mine. Everything had to be perfect. Mom and Dad would proofread my homework as if the teacher was grading their grammar, not mine. I remember spending a lot of time on a drama project for my final fine arts grade that was due on a Tuesday morning. I hadn’t paced myself well, and although I had completed the rough draft of the play we had to write, I hadn’t left enough time to put the final copy into print on my own computer. It was after midnight and all my rough draft components were on the floor. I had a calculus test in the morning. My mother took charge (as always): ‘Amy, you have to get an A on the calculus exam tomorrow, and this drama assignment should be superb. You know you stand an excellent chance of getting the fine arts prize and others, and the whole family is flying in for honors night. I don’t want to be humiliated. You’ve done the work. I’ll stay up and type the final version. You need your rest.”

It was always about my mom and living up to her expectations and feeling that her credibility rested on my success. (Failure wasn’t an option.) I remember (and always will) making a decision that I would regret. I agreed to let her do it. The grade and teacher comment were the best I’d ever had and I felt sick. When I read the play in its final form, it was perfect. Only it wasn’t my work. Firstly, I didn’t really complete it in a timely manner and I should have planned better. That became a pattern for me when I reached college, as there was no one to bail me out. Secondly there were some subtle changes in the text: punctuation, spelling, etc. Mom sure did a perfect job of “editing and typing.” The play was chosen to be enacted at the Upper School assembly, and I wanted to hide—especially when the teacher commented that it was the “fine tuning” I’d done in the final version that had made the plot even stronger. Our honor code requires that we sign a pledge to say that we never received any help. When I accepted the fine arts prize and when I graduated, I felt a hollow pit in my stomach. I felt lonely and empty. I didn’t really know who I was, and the accolade felt hollow.

I wish my mom had said, "Amy, looks like you need to pace yourself better. Explain to your teacher tomorrow that you have fallen behind schedule. It might mean a lower grade, but you will have learned more about how to pace yourself. Besides, I love you just as you are and I’m proud that you tried so hard." I feel disconnected from my mom because I can’t be vulnerable enough to fail. I always wondered if they loved me more because of my performance. My mom’s obvious pleasure at my award blinded her to how I felt. Our relationship changed that day. Perhaps the only positive thing to come out of this is I’ll never do that to my children, and I won’t stand by as a passive accomplice in the future. I am so afraid of college. There is not much I’ve done on my own.

Amy’s story is tragic but poignant. It happens all the time—in school, in extracurricular activities, in life, in relationships. Allow your children to fail and grow. It is a great gift. Don’t live through them. That is like placing a noose around their neck.

Take home messages:

If your child has a chance to sit it out or dance, encourage her to dance.

Our actions model expected behavior for our children more than our words.

If we are afraid to encourage our children to risk failure, we clip their wings and prevent them from soaring.

  • 69 pages
  • Published by Author House, 2006

[Subject: Moral Development and Character Education]

[Subject: Parenting]


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