I have been thinking lately that I should make a point of modeling failure to my kids. Because failure is the best thing you can allow to happen to your kids.

The academic treadmill is particularly dangerous because there is not a lot of room to fail when you are a smart student who does what you are told. Those kids—always told they are succeeding—are the ones most ruined by the treadmill system.

I want them to see I make mistakes. So I laid out the two rugs I bought, and I called the kids downstairs.

“Look at my new rugs,” I said.

“Don’t put those in our room,” my oldest said.

“Yeah” chimed the other kid. “They’re ugly.”

“I actually really love them. Look closely. The blue one is made out of neck ties. Someone cut and resewed them to make a rug.  And look at the brown one. It’s t-shirts. They are sort of cut and folded into squares.”

The boys look.

I don’t bother telling them about how the rugs deconstruct the doldrums of the office to create art. Instead I say, “The rugs don’t match. They don’t actually match anything in the house. And they’re not returnable.”

My younger son says, “Can we go now?”

Okay. So it wasn’t a great lesson. And then I think, I am not going to be able to model failure. Because it’s my failure. It’s what I care about. Kids have to do their own failure and then see my response to their failure.

Of course my response is to try to solve their problem, because watching them fail is so painful to me.

I spend a lot of time crafting compliments that praise effort rather than talent: “You are such a hard worker,” or “I like how diligent you have been with that.” But now I see I need new language to encourage failure. Like, “It’s too bad you didn’t win. Sometimes that happens.” Or, “It’s hard to spend so much time working on a project that ends up not working.”

No more fixing stuff for the kids. I’m realizing that the great thing about self-directed learning is that it’s failure that matters.

The kids don’t care when my new rugs don’t match. And they care as much about my rugs as about some teacher’s math project. Failing at something someone else chooses for you is so different than failing at your own project.

Which is how I decided to paint my rooms to match my rugs.

21 replies
  1. Cindy Allen
    Cindy Allen says:

    I suppose the best experience of our lives was also the worst; when their dad abandoned us, I was laid off for the 3rd time, failed at a few jobs, lost our home, had my bank accounts seized, had nowhere to go for a few weeks….Then, landed in a beautiful home, started a business, worked like a dog, got them in college, bumped up our lifestyle steadily for the next six years until now. I sort of gauge how well we’re doing by the season ski pass I can afford. We have pretty great ones this year….

    As hard as it all was and as sad as I feel that my boys had to go through what they did, it was not all bad. My oldest wrote me a letter two years ago, about how I created our life from nothing, how we have a home where his friends are welcome, how he admires me more than anybody, how he saw how I never gave up and kept going after the golden ring……

    They are still in the process of transitioning from boys to men, one in his last year of college, the other in his first….I cry about them missing out on carefree childhoods. But, I like to think all that loss wasn’t for nothing. My boys experienced first hand that when you lose everything, it isn’t over. You can rebuild something better than before. It’s an invaluable lessen, even though I still wish they didn’t have to learn it when they were little boys.

    • Kate
      Kate says:

      Thank you for this. I’m still in the rebuilding phase. On hard days I consider that my teenagers will (hopefully) be grateful later.

  2. Tracy Moore
    Tracy Moore says:

    Cindy, your comment moved me to tears. Kudos to you. Seriously. The self-pity fest I was indulging in five minutes ago instantly evaporated. I’m glad your boys have you as their Mum.

  3. Tracey C MacCorquodale
    Tracey C MacCorquodale says:

    I actually really enjoy your bold red walls. I imagine they are fairly invigorating to one’s spirit. I always book the meeting rooms with red walls at my office for this reason. I’m guessing you will paint them navy now? You could probably find a way to tie the red in better and keep them if you want to. The colour coordination is not that conflicting in my opinion and clashing has been a trend in fashion for awhile now so probably in interior design too.

    Sometimes it depresses me how dedicated you are to developing your children’s emotional intelligence, because this was neglected in my upbringing and it truly is everything in navigating life.

    Failure later on in life is particularly difficult to manage for those with ADD because successes are so easy to come by when younger. You can take every mental short cut known to man. You just don’t learn a thing about persistence or overcoming hardship. I wish I could reverse engineer my childhood giftedness sometimes so I could rake in on some early lessons in failure. I have a bit of a mantra that I believe came from Tony Robbins. He said something along the lines of ‘there is no such thing as failure. There are only results. You didn’t fail -you got results you didn’t want. So try a different method that will get those results.’ I love that style of thinking. Removes the emotional content and redirects to problem solving.

  4. Blandy Fisher
    Blandy Fisher says:

    The stakes are low when kids fail, even with things that are big to them. “No one died, no one is homeless [except Cindy, kudos to you!]. Take five minutes to feel sorry for yourself, then suck it up and figure out what you are going to do next.” Lather, rinse, repeat; they will internalize it over time. When they are older and the stakes are higher, huge payoff.

  5. Jill
    Jill says:

    I think it is going to be really impossible to know what type of education, or what to model for our children, that will serve them well in thier future lives. Our parents thought if we studied hard and did well in school that would pave the way for us. They used their knowledge at the time to make that prediction, but it didn’t really turn out to be a good one. And now we do the same to our children…we try to predict what will help them succeed in the future, and failure seems to be the word of the day. But I don’t think there is really anything we can do. A lot of success comes down to genetics and luck. I think the problem with education of any sorts is when it tries to sell some future result. Work hard in school and you will get a good job (and be happy), is not being replaced with a new breed of predictions like failing and what not, that will lead to future success. I just don’t think we can predict. The world is changing in ways we cannot anticipate.
    I think we cause suffering when we think we can control our destiny’s, or that of our children.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      “A lot of success comes down to genetics and luck.”

      And Support.

      Failure is not taught, but the reaction to failure within a familial unit is fostered (not allowing external failures foster a sense of internal failure, for one).

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    There’s a good article ( http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/08/24/growth-mindset-how-to-normalize-mistake-making-and-struggle-in-class/ ) at Mind/Shift that addresses growth mindset, productive failure, and normalizing struggle. There’s another article ( http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/01/14/practical-ways-to-develop-students-mathematical-reasoning/ ) on the same site specific to math reasoning using principles from the previous link. Both articles are covered in a school setting. However, I believe the principles hold true for the learning of all children and may be accomplished in a homeschool setting with some parental guidance if and when necessary. I like the post. I added the links and terminology from the links to support it.
    Also, this sentence, “Of course my response is to try to solve their problem, because watching them fail is so painful to me.” may be a natural reaction to your school education (i.e. – learning in a school-type system where I also learned many years ago). The first sentence of the second link – “Traditional math class was all about solving problem sets as fast as possible, but increasingly math teachers are slowing down to allow kids the time and space to reason through their answers and explain their thinking to peers.” – highlights that teachers also don’t have all the answers including the methods by which they teach and, of course, some are better than others. So when you or any homeschooling parent is teaching, it’s good to remind oneself how they were taught and to be ready to be taught by the student. I like that you show us how your kids are teaching you.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Mark, you’ve put your finger on something there. One of the undeniable benefits of homeschooling is being able to adapt your system to the student. My son learns math very differently than I did, and there’s a lot of him teaching me how to teach him going on.

      And yeah the way they do it in school would (will?) be hard for him. He is really good at figuring out unstated assumptions in word problems, which is fun to talk about but doesn’t necessarily help you put down the right answer. He’s just way too big picture.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Thanks Bostonian. Good luck to your son if he does decide to go to school. He’ll have the unique perspective of learning in both a homeschool and school environment. Whether or not he decides to go and then stay in school until he goes to college is neither here or there. I think he needs to make the decision. He knows best even though you may prefer to homeschool him. It appears that he’s challenging himself and making what he knows may be a school of hard knocks decision for him to go to school rather than stay in his comfort zone of homeschooling. I’m sure he knows he can always go back to homeschooling.

  7. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    My grandmother, great grandmother, and great great grandmother grew up on a farm that had many of the decorative elements that you use. My great grandmother would always use her husband’s old ties to make pillows. I thought they were ugly but one of the lessons about farm life is that you use what you have and don’t let things go to waste. They also had a garden where they grew their own food (as well as a spring house to keep milk and butter cool). My great grandmother also decorated her walls with old farm items like sleigh bells (they had a sled that they would take to church in the winter). I think you’ve done something similar with your home. It is amazing to me how similar the things are in your home to the things in their’s.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This makes me happy. My husband was so close to the people who lived in the house before us — they were like grandparents to him. And I always feel responsible for honoring the house. Like I’m just saving what they gave us so I can give it to the next person. I feel so much more of a sense of being part of a long line of people living on a farm than living in a city. So anyway, I like hearing that the house reminds you of your grandma. (To be honest I worry that the house will remind people of an insomniac who spends too much time shopping online late at night.)

      Penelope

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    There really isn’t any wiggle room for failure in a school setting. Failures are moments of learning that are penalized in schools via bad grades. This means that parents of school kids need to allow their kids opportunities to fail in their activities outside of school. Homeschooling allows failure without the penalties.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Yes. The parents of school kids allow their kids to fail while they struggle with their homework. Then the parents swoop in to help with the homework that neither the parents or the child got to choose if it gets to “critical status” (bad grades).

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        The stakes are just too high within the pressure-fueled environment of school to allow failure. As an outcome, the fear of failure can be paralyzing.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      To get the rugs Melissa had to become a rug wholesaler and she found this crazy site that somehow just made a few of them. I almost lost the link and then got terrified that I’d never see the rugs again – that’s what made me buy both of them. They were very inexpensive, and because I can see the dirty underside of anything, I worry that slave laborers sewed them or something. I try to put that thought out of my mind — or at least deep in the comments section.

      Penelope

  9. Moms on the Sidelines
    Moms on the Sidelines says:

    “It’s hard to spend so much time working on a project that ends up not working.”

    This reminds me of what I read in the book “How to talk so kids will listen, how to listen so kids will talk”, and “How to win friends and influence people”. Active listening is by far the most beneficial skill I’ve worked to develop. Both at work and home.

  10. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Really came home to me this year when my son was not allowed to drop calculus even though he was struggling and it wasn’t needed for college and it was taking too much time away from his other classes. Solely bc it was two month into the year and you can only drop in the first 3 days of the year long class. It made me realize how the system discourages stretching or challenging oneself bc you are then stuck even if it’s not for you. What kind of lesson does that teach our kids?

  11. Purva Brown
    Purva Brown says:

    Hey, if they play video games, they already know failure. And that it is not paralyzing! And that all they have to do is try again. Love this post, though. I too take on odd teaching projects like these.

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