Embracing Failure

I lost. I cannot believe I lost. As I stared at the election results in disbelief, frustration built from my toes, boiling up until the tears began to rush down my cheeks and sobs shook my body. The flood of tears was more than disappointment; they were a cauldron of anger, indignation, disbelief, and shame. I had taken a chance, put myself out there, and failed.

My husband watched tentatively and took what seemed like an eternity to speak. I accuse him sometimes of being a robot because of his even temper, but he is often more in-tune with my emotions than I am. He gets me. When he finally spoke, he softly said, “Get it out now and do not let the kids see you like this.”

Taken aback at first, I couldn’t believe he wanted me to bottle up my emotions and create the façade that I was not upset. I want my children to know that their emotions are valid and feel free to express them without fear of repercussion. Why was my husband asking me to essentially lie to my children? After time to reflect, though, I realized that he didn’t want me to hide my emotions, but to present them in a way that allowed us all to deal with this disappointment in a healthy and productive manner.

Mateo and Lucy were my hardest working campaign volunteers (ok, campaign voluntolds).  Their little legs walked miles, campaigning tirelessly for their mom. My children and their classmates were my primary reason for running for the school board.

I campaigned nonstop for the month before the election. I wrote articles, shook hands, knocked on doors, and was confident that my credentials, ideas, and experience made me the most qualified candidate to ensure quality education for Massillon students. In losing the election, I let my kids down and had to look into their big brown doe eyes and explain it.

We assure our children that if they work really hard and do their best, they will succeed. This is a bold-faced lie. Reality is much more complex than this naïve bootstrap ideology. Failure is much more likely for most of us, no matter how hard we try. Some of us start life on third base and others without a uniform. Privilege is a powerful force and winners and losers are not solely determined by hard work, dedication, and ability.

As parents, we must recognize this uncomfortable reality and stop repeating falsehoods to our children. As a culture, we need to openly acknowledge and discuss the relationship between privilege, inequity, and failure.

How do we do this while still encouraging our children to work through challenges? How do we explain to kids that their successes and failures are not solely determined by their personal actions, but that they still have agency in their lives?

Some children have access to resources that give them significant advantages. Statistically, they are much more likely to succeed academically than many of their classmates. Does this mean they are not smart or deserving? Does it mean that they shouldn’t be proud of their successes?

On the flip side, should kids who have access to fewer resources use that as an excuse not to do well? Should we just accept that those children who enjoy less privilege will be hindered by those disadvantages with a defeatist attitude? Do we emphasize personal responsibility less and not encourage students to reach for the stars because we know the odds of them getting there are slim?

As with most complex questions, I do not have any concrete answers, but I’ve done some research which has moved me toward an uncomfortable, but necessary approach to this dilemma: expect and embrace failure.

Parenting and education literature is full of calls to allow our children to experience and work through failure. A growing body of research shows that children who develop this ability are much more likely to succeed in every aspect of their lives. Terms like grit, resilience, and growth mindset encourage adults to help children navigate challenges and learn from failure.  

While these are not new concepts, this approach has experienced a recent resurgence. The idea is to move away from helicopter parenting and allow children space to experience the failure while still providing the scaffolding that children need to learn and guidance to help them cope.

Like all theory, it makes sense in the abstract but becomes much more complicated in practice. Critics have challenged that the approach unfairly places a burden upon poor children who may experience failure more often because of factors outside of their control.  Emphasis on developing grit, which most children living in poverty already have, can cause us to ignore more important issues.

Critics also point out that too much failure and too much disappointment could backfire and demoralize children. More privileged children could develop a disproportional sense of entitlement if they see their success purely as a result of hard work and no other mitigating factors. Misunderstanding of concepts can lead to misapplication in practice.

All complications aside, learning to accept failure and learn from it is a critical skill for our children to learn. Much of the literature focuses on giving children opportunities to fail, but I’ve been thinking about my role. My mom used to quip, “Do as I say, not as I do,” but jokes aside, the bulk of parenting is not what we tell our children; it is what we show them.

As the oldest of four girls living with our single working mother, I became a defacto role model and a sometimes parent to my sisters. I strove to do everything right: I earned perfect grades, was president of what seemed like every club, and eventually earned enough scholarships to afford to go away to college. In my mind, I was setting a good example for my sisters to follow; in theirs, I was an overachiever who thought I was perfect.

What my sisters didn’t know was that I messed up, a lot, and wasn’t quite sure how to handle it.  I have always been so focused on success that I never quite figured out how to work through my failure productively. I was well aware of each and every one of my flaws and my insecurities limited my progress.

Because of this, I’ve been a coward. I didn’t follow through on my dream of working in the Peace Corps because I was afraid to leave home. I didn’t apply to law school because I was afraid I wouldn’t be accepted. I didn’t look for jobs out of state or take trips overseas because I didn’t want to go alone.  Putting myself out there, being brave enough to know I would probably fail and doing it anyways has always been a terrifying prospect.

My biggest fear is failing as a parent. I spent every waking moment of my first pregnancy educating myself on how to be the best possible parent imaginable. I had a miscarriage before getting pregnant with Mateo, which I irrationally interpreted as a failure, so I never quite embraced my pregnancy. I spent most days worried that I would lose my son or desperately trying to learn about how not to fail him when he came.

When Mateo finally arrived, I fought through what I suspect was postpartum depression, coupled with my fear of failing as a mother. I was over-the-top protective and this resulted in strained relationships with my family and a child we jokingly began to call the “hall monitor” because of his strict adherence to rules.

With the arrival of Lucia, my first-time parent jitters began to wane, but the fear of failing my children, of not being the perfect mother to them, stayed put with the added pressure of raising an independent and strong daughter piled on. Experience has been my teacher over the past 8 years and I’ve challenged myself to change, adapt, improve, and relax. My next step is to transform my fear of failure into an embrace of it.

Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Originals, writes that when most of us fear failure, we walk away from bold ideas and play it safe. The most innovative, successful, and fulfilled people, though, learn to see failure as a step forward because we learn more from failure than from success. He writes, “Ultimately what we regret is not the failure, but failure to act.” Embracing failure is not about loving to lose; it’s about being brave enough to keep trying, using each failure to ultimately progress.

If we want our children to learn grit, resilience, and a growth mindset, we must begin by practicing it ourselves. We cannot hide our failures and disappointments; instead, we must shine the brightest of lights on them and move through failure transparently. This involves some humility and vulnerability on our parts.

So many of us want to be superheroes to our children.  This social and personal pressure to be all things and show no weakness can be detrimental in the long run.  If our children see us as infallible, then what do they think of themselves when they make mistakes? If they see the end results, but not the hardships, the setbacks, and the strife of our journey, then how can they develop the grit to move successfully through theirs? Do we have the right to encourage our children to take chances if we’re too afraid to take the leap ourselves?

I’m a competitor and I love to win. I am also a concerned and engaged citizen educator who wants to affect positive change in our schools, but ultimately losing this election was a gift. My children watched their mother fall flat on her face. They worked alongside of me, putting in long hours, giving up what little free time we had, walking mile after mile and knocking on door after door. We worked really hard, we did our best, and we still lost.

The first lesson is how to move forward from the crushing disappointment. Mateo, Lucy, and I talked at length about our emotions, but more importantly, they watched as I dealt with defeat as gracefully as I know how (it was most definitely not perfect). I’ve also found opportunity in the experience, rediscovering my passions and accepting new challenges. I’ve thrown myself back into coaching and I know I can affect positive change by championing each of my players, encouraging them to build on their accomplishments and learn from their struggles.

Another election will arrive in two years and I plan to run again. I still have the signs, after all, and now I have the added benefit of experiencing the pitfalls of local politics. Most importantly, my family and I are forging ahead and looking for new challenges where we will inevitably mess up, make mistakes, fall on our faces, and do our best to embrace it all.


7 thoughts on “Embracing Failure”

  1. Brave and beautifully written article, Nicole. I can very much relate as a fellow firstborn and parent. Just doing our best to raise our children, some days it feels effortless, other days I feel like I’m doing more harm than good! Look forward to following your future articles.

  2. Remember the saying, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! You had an eye opening experience but definitely learned from it, you are an educator. Take those pitfalls and be ready to climb that mountain again 😊 !! Good luck.

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