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May 14 2012

I’m a Failure… and So Are My Kids!

By at 2:47 pm

failed stampI didn’t sell any books last week. This may not seem like such a big deal. Except for the fact that I’ve pretty much bet the house and staked my reputation as a writer on the brand new, as yet untested notion that readers are ready for enhanced ebooks, i.e. my previously published novels “pimped out” with video, audio, and other multimedia features. Guess not.

In addition, a magazine pitch of mine was rejected as being too much like something they’d just assigned to someone else, while a completed piece was more or less re-written prior to publication.

I can’t wait to tell my kids about it.

A couple of years ago, when my husband lost his job after only a few months, the first thing I did (well, after scrubbing out the spice cabinets–when I’m stressed, I clean), was make sure to tell the kids. And note how Daddy had failed.

We tell our kids that we’ve failed all the time. (Fortunately, life hands us numerous opportunities to do so.) And we tell them when they’ve failed, too.

In fact, we go out of our way to locate opportunities for them to do so.

I gather that is not Modern Parenting 101.

Modern Parenting 101 holds that it is our job to bolster our offspring’s self-esteem, put forward unconditional approval, and make sure the kids feel good about themselves 24/7.

No, thank you.

For one thing, telling a child that he/she is perfect all the time is blatantly untrue. You know it, they know it. If they were perfect all the time, there would be no cause for discipline, or even instruction. When they get a bad grade because they didn’t study or strike out because they weren’t looking or hit a flat note where there should have been a sharp, they know they’ve made a mistake. So, what’s the value of acting like they didn’t?

At best, your child thinks you lack awareness (or a sense of pitch). At worse, they think you’ve lied to them.

Because you have. How’s that a beneficial thing?

What’s the motivation to improve if you’re already perfect just the way you are? (I love Mr. Rogers. I co-produced his tribute at the 1997 Daytime Emmys and he couldn’t have been lovelier or more gracious. But, that catch-phrase of his drove me nuts. If everyone is perfect just the way they are, should no one strive to improve themselves ever again? Everything is copasetic and nothing is socially unacceptable any longer? We’ve really hit the peak of human evolution and potential?)

But, the most important reason my husband and I talk to our kids about our own failures and theirs is because we don’t want them to be afraid of it.

My husband insisted our oldest son keep going to Tae Kwon Do even after sparring became mandatory and our son balked, because my husband wanted him to see that you can take a punch–and get back up again.

Our middle son competes in fencing tournaments against older kids (10 and under, even though he could qualify for the 8 and under), which he has yet to win. Because you don’t improve by going up against those weaker than you. You improve by facing those who are stronger.

And our daughter… well, she still thinks she’s the greatest singer, actress, gymnast, and guitar player who ever lived. And the prettiest, too. She’s 5. Life will set her straight soon enough. No need to rush things.

As a result of our reluctance to protect them from reality, our kids get upset about things that, in theory, we could have avoided. When they lose or break a toy, they don’t get a replacement. When it’s time to sign up for a library card, they have to go up to the scary, main desk and ask for it themselves. I’m not going to do it for them. When one of my sons forgets his homework, he has to face the consequences with his teacher–I’m not going to ride in to the rescue. When the Bess Beetles died because their container was left on the heater, we made it clear who was responsible. (I also confessed that I would not miss them.)

On the other hand, we were at a birthday party at a play space last weekend and, as we were leaving, my daughter didn’t get a balloon–they’d run out. I expected tears and cries of “No fair!” Instead, when I told her she’d have to handle it herself, she marched to the manager’s desk and explained, “I didn’t get a balloon. Can I have one, please?”

She got her balloon.

And, hopefully, a sense of her own agency, as well.

Because, as far as I’m concerned, self-esteem comes from actually accomplishing something. Not being told that you did in direct contradiction of facts in evidence.

My oldest son is now one stripe away from getting his black belt. He still hates sparring, but he knows he’ll survive it.

My middle son won a silver medal at his last fencing tournament. He knows if he wants to turn that silver into gold, he’ll have to work even harder.

And my daughter has a balloon!

Fear of failure, and the paralysis of inaction that comes with it, is the greatest impediment to doing anything at all. Because doing anything at all, especially something with a high chance of failure, means taking a risk. Sucks that, most of the time, taking a risk is the necessary first step to success. (It’s also the first step to failure. But, somehow, that doesn’t sound nearly as pithy. So let’s not dwell on it.) At our house, a failure is a person who stepped out of their comfort zone and tried something new.

Everyone wants their children to “succeed.” Though, of course, everyone has their own definition of what precisely that means. Which is how it should be.

We happen to believe that the best way to achieve success in any field is through an intimate familiarity with failure. When something is a part of your life on a daily basis, it has a tendency to lose its power. And its intimidation factor.

I fail, we fail, they fail. So, I didn’t sell any books last week. At least I can use it as a teachable moment…


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