Teaching kids that failure = success (with help from the Olympics)

olympic rings copyThe girls are 14-, 12-, and 11-years old.  By virtue of luck, good genes, and effort, there has been little ‘falling down’ in which they’ve needed to get up and brush themselves off.  This is not a result of helicopter parenting either, though I’ve certainly been known to drop off a forgotten lunch and occasional homework assignment to school because I can.  The girls know ‘it should never happen again’ and so it rarely does.

As wise participants of life, we know that all the good stuff generally comes after bad – the failures, the difficulties, the excruciating hard work, stress, nerves, taking chances.  Let me quote – who else? – a coach, Lou Holtz:

Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.

Put even more simply:

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.  – Nietzsche

I don’t lose sleep at night worrying that my daughters will never face hardship.  It’s guaranteed in the contract of life that they will.  But I do fret that the longer they go without an honest setback, the trickier it becomes to react in a way that harvests something positive from the experience.  If all they’re used to is success, inevitable defeat could crush them.

Is this a quality problem?  Mostly yes.  Having kids who struggle is no fun for anyone, and issues in our First World neighborhood hardly rise to challenging levels for our daughters.  They don’t wonder where their next meal will come from or dodge bullets in a crime-infested ghetto.  But how do we prepare them for the future without them experiencing any present conflicts beyond the occasional ‘girl drama’ or mediocre teacher?

I recently started a new club soccer team for Miss T.  I had expected one young girl to make the roster but when she came to try out, it was after an injury which had kept her off the pitch for three months.  The coach thought it best to let the parents know she needed more practice and that if she was interested in joining the squad down the road, we’d leave the door open to them and to her.  When I reached out to the dad in an email, apologizing for the unfortunate situation, one of the things he wrote regarding his daughter was this: “If you don’t have disappointments in your life, you are not challenging yourself.”  I was moved and grateful to him for such a mature, honest response.  But I couldn’t help but think about Bun Bun and Miss T.

Goldie is in high school now and experiencing its natural challenges.  She’s gone from a class of 29 to one with 330 students.  She’s more social than her sisters and so spreads her wings and puts herself out there with greater ease, and therefore has felt the rigors of rejection.  There have been tears but also an acknowledgement of recovery.  That hurt but I’m okay.  With grades and sports, she’s had to work harder than her sisters and for that, her natural ability to cope has increased.  She wants to live in New York City when she’s older because rather than intimidation with its pace and structure, she feels inspired by what the city offers.  And really, if you can make it there, or even just avoid getting swallowed by its challenges, you can make it anywhere.  Put a New Yorker in the middle of nowhere and they’ll find a way out and a way home.

But Miss T?  Bun Bun?  Life has been a piece of cake and then some.  Sure, they both work hard, and the results have always been impressive.  They have always enjoyed the fruits of their labors.  The idea that life isn’t always fair would shock them.  And yet I’m hardly going to create inorganic situations to challenge them simply because I worry they’ll fall apart at the first hint of failure.  Yet failure is the bitter medicine of success.  My conundrum is a curious one.

One word sticks in my head as an antidote to this particular issue: exposure.  As long as I continue to push the girls out into the world, thereby allowing them to see others with less doing more, perhaps they’ll be okay.  By exposing them to this, that, and the other thing, they’re bound to pick up on potential difficulties that lie ahead, and hopefully see how individuals overcome differing degrees of adversity.  I want them to watch the Olympics with me not simply because it’s fun and I’m a junkie, but because the human interest stories – mogul gold-medal-winner Alex Bilodeau and his brother Frederic who has cerebral palsy – are instructive.  There is no shortage of stories coming out of Sochi that can’t be reduced to a sports-themed Horatio Alger trope.  And with luger Kate Hansen, the girls can also be exposed to someone’s effort for the sake of joy.  What a concept – disappointment that looks an awful lot like success.

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  1. says

    When I think of exposure, I think of my Mom who exposed us to so much, including museums and classical music. As kids we hated the former and accepted the latter. I can’t imagine life without either. And yet, though our daughter was born to Mozart, we failed miserably at exposing her to classical music. And guess what, now at 18, she doesn’t like it. There is so much “exposure” available to us as parents, and I suppose we just may miss a few opportunities along the way. Perhaps she’ll have a boyfriend one day who happens to be a violinist in an orchestra…….

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