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Teaching My Daughter To Fail

Last night I lay snuggling with Maddie as we do every night, talking through the day behind us and looking forward to the one to come. Maddie’s been in Invention Camp all week, and today is the culmination of all their hard work, getting to test inventions they’ve been working on all week, and showing off their projects to enthusiastic parents.

“So are you happy camp is almost over, or sad?” I asked.

“Well, mostly sad, but also a lot stressed about tomorrow,” Maddie said, surprising me.

“Why are you stressed about it?” I asked, and Maddie gave a huge sigh, and spilled it all.

The camp asks every student to bring in some sort of machine they can take apart – an old computer tower, an electric drill, a popcorn maker, whatever. They were then broken into small groups and given the task of taking each item apart, and then using those parts to build a duck launcher – something that would launch a rubber duck so many feet to land it in the bathtub. There are rules, of course, and what you brought is what you get to use.

Maddie’s group has her computer tower, a coffeemaker, a dvd player, and a couple other items, and for the first part of the week Maddie’s enjoyed this part of the day. But apparently Thursday brought on more than a small amount of panic as my daughter’s group tested their contraption over and over again and nine times out of ten, failed to make it work.

“So I’m really scared that it won’t work, and every other team’s launcher is going to be better than ours, and the only other thing we can do is forfeit!” she ended.

“Are you saying you’d rather forfeit, and never even try, than give it a try and risk failing?” I asked evenly. (Or at least, it sounded evenly in my head).

Maddie nodded.

“I’m just really afraid the team is going to ask me to do the launching, and I won’t make it work, and we’ll fail, and it’ll be all my fault. And there’s nowhere to go that I can be alone to cry, which I know I’ll need to do, because I looked today – there’s no private places nearby! So then I’ll start crying and be really embarrassed and it’ll be awful!” she gasped. And started crying.

“Oh, honey,” I sighed. “I know exactly how you feel. Now, can you tell me, what would happen if your launcher doesn’t work? Why do you think that would make you cry? Is it because you want everyone to think you’re really good at everything and you don’t want people to see you fail at something, or is it because you’ll be mad that your team didn’t use your design, or what? Can you think to why it’d make you cry?”

Maddie stared at me. “I TOLD you! It’s because I’d let the whole team down! And the design’s the only one we could come up with, as a team! If I could come up with a better one, we’d have done it!” And she rolled over and sighed miserably.

“So you feel the pressure to not let people down, is that it?” I asked. She nodded silently.

“Listen, baby, you’re going to let people down a lot. A LOT. And the sooner you figure out you’re not perfect, the better your life’s going to be. I let you down all the time, and do a lot of things wrong raising you. But if I never tried because I was afraid to fail, can you imagine what your life would be like? Honestly, baby, how you handle failure will make people admire you more than how you handle success.”

I went on.

“Plus, this is the Gifted camp. Which means you’re in a room full of kids who all succeed at pretty much everything they try. So success isn’t something that will make these kids sit up and take notice. Handling failure gracefully, not taking it as a personal reflection on you, and getting up and trying again – that’s what will earn you the admiration of your friends. And that’s what’s going to help you in life.” I told Maddie that I’ve failed at a lot of things in my life, but the only things I’ve ever really regretted are the things I didn’t even try because I was afraid of failing.

And then we planned her emergency exit plan, for how to get out gracefully if she did start crying.

I see this fear paralyze my daughter, and I feel helpless. I wish I had those magic words to help her set that burden down, to stop holding herself to such a high standard, but the truth is, she inherits this from me, so whatever those words are, I need to hear them as well.

And I think all our children do; my generation of parents are so afraid of bruising our baby’s delicate ego that we go out of our ways to cajole a teacher into a higher grade or persuade a referee to count a nebulous goal. There is value in learning to fail, and isn’t it better that they do it when the stakes are small than wait and experience failure for the first time when they’re on their own without us to help them work through it?

I’m not sure what’ll happen today, with either the duck launcher or Maddie’s tears. I know I’m praying for bravery for her – bravery to do what she needs to do, and courage to accept that failure is a way of learning, too.


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