failing up.

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In all of our divisional parent nights and in our language with students, we are talking about failure and struggle. We are speaking of these things with a positive tone to set the message that failure is a part of the learning process. In fact, it is really the most important part of the learning process. If we constantly achieve instant success, it is unlikely that we will gain the deep learning that is necessary for critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. We have a collective responsibility as the adults in the lives of these young humans to make struggle and failure a regular, if not celebrated, practice of life.

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Japanese Proverb

In her new book, The Gift of Failure, middle school educator, author and parent, Jessica Lahey weaves her tale of learning the value of failure. Her first paragraph lays out the clear, if alarming, thesis of the book: “today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” She then goes on to share her own story of being an overprotective, failure-avoidant, parent and teacher and how she grew into one who models and embraces failure and struggle for her children and students. Along the way, she shares her research base, including Edward Deci’s Self Determination Theory (a favorite of mine) and provides practical applications such as how she was transparent with her kids about making the change to be less “do for” and more guide.

Her childhood mirrored my own. My family lived on a decent plot of land for suburban Maryland and a thickly wooded creek ran along side and behind my house. A typical Saturday would be spent down the street at a neighbors, throwing on waders and catching crayfish, or riding bikes to the 7-11 for slurpees. All of this was in the age before cell phones and statistically more crime. I had incredible parents who provided me with amazing opportunities like going to the Orioles or going to the Baltimore Symphony, taking piano lessons, and playing soccer. They helped with homework, especially math, but if I forgot it, too bad; I would learn next time to remember it. Getting to swim practice every day? From about age 10, my mode of transportation was my trusty purple ten-speed and then my teal Hyundai which was only given to me so I could become the chauffeur to my younger sister. My household chores included setting the table for family dinner, doing my own laundry starting in middle school, and the dreaded leaf raking and snow shoveling.

Likewise, I had teachers who felt my struggle and who empathized deeply with it. However, they knew their main goal was not to make me happy. They knew that struggle would be essential to making me an independent, competent, and autonomous person. I could tell you countless stories of educators who have encouraged me to fail up—to fail in a way helped me grow forward.

In the two decades or so, this type of failure has grown out-of-style. Parenting, coaching, and teaching trends have leaned towards the happiness of our children rather than celebrating their struggle. The over-scheduled lives of our children have led us —the adults in their lives — to do more for them. Or our own desire for things to be a certain way has inhibited our ability to let kids take control of things (Specifically, I’m thinking of learning to tie my shoes or the proper way to load the dishwasher.) Difficulty and patience have given way to comfort and expediency and the losers, in the long run, are our children.

This is not meant to scold us or to put all of us in the same guilty bucket of providing a free-wheeling life for children. This is a call to action for adults, both teachers and parents, to build opportunities for their own success through failure. Perhaps this means letting them forget that PE uniform or homework assignment. Or maybe it means a few more chores, done to their best effort and a little less comfort. In learning the value of failure and hard work, they will reap the rewards of autonomy, self-reliance, and competence in a way that will serve them for life.

This is not meant to scold us or to put all of us in the same guilty bucket of providing a free-wheeling life for children. Rather it is a call to action for us, the adults making the decisions for our children, to build opportunities for their own success through failure. Perhaps this means letting them forget that PE uniform or homework assignment. Or maybe it means a few more chores, done to their best effort and a little less comfort. In learning the value of failure and hard work, they will reap the rewards of autonomy, self-reliance, and competence in a way that will serve them for life.

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