There is no doubt that our culture is bent on the pursuit of success; we see it everywhere. In turn, the idea of failure is one that we expend a lot of focus and energy avoiding and helping others avoid, especially our children.
In my First-Year Seminar course for new college freshman, we spend an entire class exploring “Failure” in order to expand our understanding about what it really is, and why we’re really afraid of it — why have we been taught to avoid something that’s likely inevitable, even helpful? A number of the sources we examine introduce us to the necessity of (read: “vital”) failure as a mechanism for learning. It sounds counterintuitive, but when I examine my own path, I know that it is true. I do not gain valuable lessons or awareness when things go well, frankly because I’m not forced or required to pay attention.
It seems it is only when things don’t work; when I’ve gone from Plan A to B, then C, then D, that I begin to ask the hard, searching questions that lead me to new insight, or to ask for help, or maybe to say “I’m sorry.” The great inventor, Thomas Edison, is known as much for putting a new perspective on the idea of “failure” as he is for what he created. He believed failure was essential in his pursuit of the next great discovery. He is quoted as saying, “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” And, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
I recently re-read Anne Lamott’s book, “Some Assembly Required,” that she co-wrote with her son, Sam. In it, Anne writes about ways she kept trying to help Sam not fail. As only Anne can do, I heard her speaking directly to our parental desire to (with the greatest intentions and hope) keep our children from getting hurt or disappointed through failure. In doing so, however, we keep them from experiencing life (read: failing) in ways that prepare them for the very life they are meant to live. Her good friend Bonnie says to her, “You’ve got to learn to let go and let your children fall, and fail. If you try to protect them from hurt, and always rush to their side with Band-Aids, they won’t learn about life and what is true, what works, what helps, and what are real consequences of certain kinds of behavior. When they do get hurt, which they will, they won’t know how to take care of their grown selves. They won’t even know where the aspirin is kept.”
So, in keeping with an on-going conversation about how to “show-up” well with our children as they become the humans they came here to be, take a time-out to examine what you’re feeling about what your child wants or doesn’t want to do. Are the actions you want to take pushing your agenda for how your child’s life “should be?” Or, are they oriented toward guiding your child’s ever-developing (and necessary) sense of competency, even if it includes failure?
I’ll let Sam usher us out with one of his growing realizations about the life he was living (I can’t say it more clearly!) “I see the hardest patches as stepping stones for what I will need as I go out from here.”
If you’re struggling to navigate the deep waters of parenthood, we’d love to help you process and move forward. Browse our therapists by location and setup your first appointment today: Nashville, Brentwood, Murfreesboro, Memphis.
Dane Anthony is the Director of Spiritual Formation for Sage Hill Counseling. He also co-facilitates multiple groups each week and teaches various classes. Learn more about Dane or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.