Let Kids Fail
“Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure” — General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan
My child’s dreams have been crushed. That’s something that has been said to me in the past when someone’s child fails to make a team they had hoped to make. And apparently the inability of some of these kids to make the team they wanted often seems to be all my fault as well (it’s amazing I get any sleep at night at all).
For my own sanity and the sanity of those that worry about what will happen when their child does not succeed, I recommend the advice of spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle. When something you don’t like happens you have three choices:
1. Change it
2. Remove yourself from the situation (if possible)
3. Accept it
Of players I’ve seen over the years that have tried out and not made the team that they wanted to, some have quit, some threaten to quit and some say nothing and get on with it. Fair enough. Of course the reaction that I or anyone in a technical leadership position would hope for, is the last one — roll with it.
LET KIDS FAIL!
Yes, be an advocate for your child. That’s something that I don’t think was present in my childhood or possibly many others that grew up pre-1990. It often felt like we were thrown into the deep end and left to our own devices to either sink or swim. Today, I think it is something we are trying to correct for our children. But here’s the key: we cannot meddle. Meddling is not advocating. At some point, we have to stop fighting, accept things and start working with it. Removing our child from the situation because they didn’t get where they wanted or what they wanted should only be a last resort.
Instead of fighting or fleeing we can try to fix. That is, we can help our children to identify and fix the things that went wrong that are under their control. We can model for them that that is the exact kind of situation that they want to tackle head on, not run away from. This is where I’m convinced from what I’ve seen over the years that we’ve lost our compass that builds self-esteem.
Here I go saying something controversial now: There’s way too much praise being doled out to kids.
Let’s not confuse praise with unconditional love. I can love my children without praising them. And maybe the issue that I perceive is that the two are being confused? We feel that the more praise we dish out, the more our kids will know they’re loved — especially when they fail. So we dish it out even when there’s really no good reason or need to do so. After all, praise in this context is an extrinsic reward. If you’ve seen any information on rewards in the last number of years, you know that extrinsic rewards tend only to work as long as the reward is present. The other side of that rewards coin is that in overpraising we risk turning our kids into praise junkies who crumble under any amount of critical feedback.
It’s unhealthy for our children to be saying “I’m a failure”. It is also unhealthy for them not to be openly accepting and admitting when they have failed. However, failing and being a failure are two very different states. We want to diminish “I’m a failure” thinking. We want to strengthen “I failed but that doesn’t make me a failure” thinking.
And so we praise and we praise and we praise some more. Kids feel great and appear strong. Why wouldn’t they? But it’s not a strong or stable internal sense of self that they’ve built. I’m sure we all want our children to develop high levels of self-esteem. So then let’s love them unconditionally and let’s let them fail. We can’t always be swooping in to rescue them from the uncomfortable — as painful as it might be for us to watch our children struggle. They can’t rise above it if they are never given the opportunity to do so. They have to learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable and, for their benefit, we have to do the same.