Teaching My Sons to Fail

Brennan, my three-year-old son, is standing at the refrigerator door, balanced precariously on a kitchen chair. "I can get my OWN juice," he tells me.

I sit at the kitchen table, munching on some pretzels, wondering where this will lead. Probably nowhere good. I imagine the jug of orange juice glugging its contents all over the wood floor while the dog laps it up. I imagine sticky feet and a bunch of orange-stained towels shoved in the clothes hamper. I imagine a hassle for myself, tears for my preschooler, and a headache that's already starting to throb in my temples.

He tugs the stainless steel handle, but the door doesn't budge. He tries again, placing a splayed hand against the side, and yanks it open, only to realize that his body is in the way.

I force myself to stay in my seat. To let him figure it out.

His face screws up in confusion, but eventually, a lightbulb flickers to life. He jumps off the chair, shoves it over, and then swings the door open with a crash. All the dressings and jellies and hot sauces rattle on the shelves, but I bite my lip, and take a breath through my nostrils. I will not move. I will not help.

He moves the chair back, climbs up once more and faces the array of containers and jugs misaligned like crooked teeth in a yawning craw. I don't think he'll find the juice. It's tucked in the back behind a heavy gallon of whole milk. And even if he finds it, I don't think he's strong enough to pull it out.

But, I'm sitting here, knees bobbing, arms crossed over my chest, battling instincts that tell me to rescue him from a task that's too heavy for his skinny shoulders. Because I know I have to let him fail. It's crucial for his development. Jessica Lahey, an educator and the author of The Gift of Failure, points out that parents who are overprotective, who don't allow their children to make a spectacular mess of things as they grow, raise anxious, fearful, dependent adults who don't understand how to rebound.

And it appears that many of us are raising kids to be that way.

A 2016 study published in Perspectives in Psychological Science found that after major life stressors like a failed job or a failed marriage, people, whom researchers used to believe were fairly resilient, sometimes take years to recover.  After studying 1,579 people who'd divorced, and 2,461 people who'd lost their jobs, researchers Frank J. Infurna and Suniya S. Luthar found that the least common response to the hardships was resilience.

And sometimes, the failure doesn't even have to be that terrible to have a major effect. One small failure, an "F" on an essay my freshman year, knocked me sideways for a full year. Sure, a bad grade doesn't seem like a major blow, but as someone who'd never received anything less than an A on a paper, someone who'd identified herself as a writer from the time she was eight, it was rattling to say the least. I made an immediate appointment with my professor, whom I believed had clearly gone off her rocker, to discuss. When I walked into her office, she perched on the edge of her desk like an owl in over-sized glasses and nodded to a seat. "I don't write failing essays," I managed around a throat full of tears.

"You did this time," she said gently, and proceeded to outline my many and varied faults. An hour later, she quoted me Samuel Beckett as I tearfully left her office. "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Her hard lesson about the hard work of success didn't really resonate until after I'd licked the stinging wounds of my ego and figured out that I needed to give it another shot – this time, with better aim.

That hour with my professor provided me with resilience that has lasted more than 20 years. I've dipped into that well as a writer so many times I cannot even count. I've been rejected on poetry, essays, books, and articles hundreds of times. I've been cast off and ignored and ripped down to the seams more frequently than I'd like to remember. But, every time I fail, every single time I hear a "No," I hear her voice resonating in my ears and I get up, do my best to understand my faults, dust myself off, and try again.

As a mom, resilience is a difficult gift to give to my sons because I know it usually comes after a swift kick in the pants.

Listening to my 7-year-old, Kaden, try out for a solo at school, knowing his warbly voice isn't skilled enough to win it, is a punch in the gut. Watching Brennan struggle to pull the orange juice from behind the milk, knowing he will probably fail and cry out of frustration is no picnic, either. 
But I will my lips zipped, because I know that the sharp pang of failure is a better teacher than I.
My job is to sit, commiserate, give them advice, but allow them the distinct opportunity to fail. Because until they learn that they must try a different tactic to get what they want – to take the voice lessons I've offered repeatedly or ask Momma for some help – they'll have a hard time bouncing back from the countless swings they'll take and miss throughout their lives.

As I pop the last pretzel into my mouth and wipe away the crumbs, I see that Brennan is climbing down from the refrigerator and slamming the door shut. He has a rectangular object in his hands and a wide smile on his face.

I'm confused. He wanted juice and it was behind the milk.

"You're not thirsty?" I ask.

"I got my own juice," he says, holding up a small, white container with a straw attached.

A juice box.

I laugh and give him a high five. Because he figured out a different way to get a drink, sidestepping the failure altogether. There's nothing more resilient than that. And as I watch him struggle to remove the wrapper from the straw, knowing it's going to be a long wait, I realize that even if I fail at everything else I try to accomplish today, at least I've allowed him the opportunity to figure out how to get what he wants all on his own.

And for a mom, that's pretty much the definition of success