If at first you don’t succeed…

by Kristin on March 20, 2012

in Love, family & community

Photo by LearningLark

As a kid, plenty of things came pretty easily to me, from sports to music to academics. What didn’t come easily was hard work, determination and passion.

I just didn’t know how to make myself really care about something I only sort of enjoyed. I didn’t know how to push myself past the easy initial acquisition of skills into higher levels of accomplishment, where things get really interesting and rewarding. Most of all, I hated the drudgery of practice, which is why I begged my parents to let me quit piano lessons after ten years of “torture” at the ivories, held captive by the kitchen timer.

Like mother, like daughter?

Now, as a parent, this continues to be a regular conundrum. When do I make my kids stick with something, and when do I give them permission to quit? Does dropping out always equal failure? Maybe not, but if I let them give up too soon, will they ever learn the important lessons associated with hard work? And what if I see real potential in them—do I push them to develop it, even if they aren’t interested?

I haven’t even come close to answering these questions definitively, but for the time being I’ve landed on some main ideas. One is that I want my kids to explore lots of things and find the activities they feel excited about and inspired by. If they aren’t driven by an inner passion for something, no amount of pushing from me will do the trick (and I’ll just drive myself to tears as well as them).

For me, that thing wasn’t playing tennis or the viola, it was writing. It just took me a while as a kid to see writing as legitimately “my thing.” I mean, I always loved writing and knew I had a knack for it, but in my small town there weren’t creative writing classes, the way there were music, dance and tennis lessons. It was difficult to get the support and guidance I needed, and to be organized about it—to think of practicing writing the way I thought of practicing scales and difficult measures of music on the piano.

Learning that difficulty can be good

Which leads me to the other main idea I have about all of this: Teaching our kids the value of hard work and diligence is a lesson that will serve them well throughout life. I say this with caution, because there are certain cultural approaches to “a strong work ethic” that frighten me. But I also fully believe Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule,” in his book Outliers, which basically says that success in any field is linked more to how much time a person devotes to it than to how much talent or intelligence he/she starts with.

I was also intrigued by this recent post at GOOD.com: “Want Students to Succeed? Let Them Fail.” Here’s how the post begins:

How many times have you heard the mantra “failure is not an option”? The need to succeed whatever the cost permeates our society, and schools are no exception. But new research in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General concludes kids might perform better in school if teachers and parents sent the message that failing is a normal part of learning.

How many times have we started to pursue something we care about, only to hit a difficult patch and assume we weren’t cut out for it? As one of the authors of the study wrote, “Acknowledging that difficulty is a crucial part of learning could stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetence that in turn disrupts learning.”

Of course, all of these parenting issues come back full circle, to me. Sometimes I’m still that kid who wants to equate ease with talent and difficulty with a dead end. But ultimately, as I wrote about in my post “Making writing hard again,” “…while the easy writing is enjoyable and satisfying, it’s also like a meal of empty carbs, providing short bursts of energy and contentment, but no deep, sustaining fuel.”

How do you deal with these issues in your own work, and as a parent?

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  • http://studentsofjesus.com Ray Hollenbach

    I’m the last guy you want parenting advice from, Kristin. Just when we think we have all the parenting answers, the next child comes along and changes all the questions.

    I’m all in for failure. If our kids can learn from failure, they will establish a lifetime pattern of personal growth. So on point two I’m with you.

    As to the discipline/hard work achievement issue, I’m of three minds (no–four) on the matter. We’ve all seen too many grown-ups living vicariously through their children, only to justify the pressure to achieve as “discipline” or “the value of hard work.” heck–I’ve probably been that guy a time or two. Yet there is growth and joy in mastering a skill, and the hard work it takes to achieve. I’ve observed, however, that most children (even adolescents) don’t always know what they want. An activity can look like great fun from the outside only to turn out to be terrifying from within. It seems to me that the joy derived from an activity might be a good indicator of where to encourage the press-through type of discipline.

    Finally, there is also the matter of integrity: if our kids commit to a socially interactive event (soccer season, a theatre performance), it seems to me that an equally important lesson is to be true to your word, even at the expense of some personal discomfort. These events have timelines: you don’t have to commit to soccer for a decade, just a season.

    If you have a parent of the year award behind all this, you don’t have to worry about shipping to Kentucky! :-)

  • http://sarahaskins.com Sarah@ From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell

    Years ago, I read a book “Failure: The Back Door to Success.” Too often, we equate success with sheer luck, not hard work. Hard work means lots of failures before we get it right. Through those struggles, I found out what made me tick, what I loved, what kept me going. But I had to fail to find it.

    With kids, I think we try to over-protect them while hurting them at the same time. Failure is such an emotional rending experience that we want to avoid it with our children. But they have to try and fail. In my parenting life, we let them try but not push them. If they don’t love it, the thing goes. With this caveat, if they sign up for a team sport, they finish the season. I think one of the most important lessons to pass on is failing well and learning from it. Such a hard lesson to do even now.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Ray, isn’t that the truth? Each kid is SO different. One of the biggest parenting challenges (but also keys, I think) is keeping those differences in mind. This is also a very sound rule of thumb: “It seems to me that the joy derived from an activity might be a good indicator of where to encourage the press-through type of discipline.” Thanks for sharing your hard-earned wisdom! (Of course, there is a trophy but I guess I won’t bother shipping it.)

    Sarah, I love that you take the idea of hard work into this realm: “Through those struggles, I found out what made me tick, what I loved, what kept me going. But I had to fail to find it.” In other words, the hard work and the finding what you really love are a part of the same process—they’re all woven together. I absolutely agree, but have never really thought of it quite like that. Thanks!

  • Mark

    My parents were big advocates of giving us the a wide latitude to fail and or quit. I think the only things not optional were being respectful, honest and attending church (3 times a week). Certainly they gave their opinion but left it to us to follow through. I think this was overall a good approach but we could have used instances of “quitting is not an option.” Things rarely came easy to me and it wasn’t until college that I realized with some effort and perserverence I could be good at something (a great grad prof always told me genius was a handmaiden to hustle). With our kids, we are very careful to analyze the long term effects of letting one of them quit an instrument, sport etc. I agree the goal should be guiding them to their passion and then let them build their enthusiasm for it. But piano is mandatory:)

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    This is something I’ve always struggled with within myself. I easily give up on things that frustrate me, even when I know that all good things in life require effort in overcoming failure. I suppose with things I really, really want to do I tend to apply more effort.