Why Failure Hits Girls So Hard

Time

@racheljsimmons

girl-fell-mud
Getty Images

Failing well is a skill

When I ask why, she answers without hesitation. “I’m so used to doing well on things. If one thing goes wrong, I just want it to go away and feel like it never happened.”

That’s why Mary rarely speaks about her setbacks, including the study-abroad trip when she suffered from brutal homesickness, but didn’t tell a soul. She is terrified to be seen as anything less than extraordinary.

Jessica Lahey’s new book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, says young women like Mary are in trouble. They’ve been so protected from mistakes, usually by their parents, that they fear failure, avoid risk and value image over learning. By the time they go to college, they are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and stress.

Lahey says parents defail their kids’ lives in order to minimize kids’ pain and extend their need for mom and dad’s support. When kids are dependent on parents, mom and dad can enjoy kids’ wins as evidence of superior parenting.

A raft of studies back up Lahey’s point. But evidence suggests that girls may be especially vulnerable when it comes to failing, and being spared from it. Here’s why trying to protect girls from challenge hits them especially hard:

Girls respond to failure differently than boys. When girls make mistakes, they’re more likely to interpret the setback as a sign they lack ability — a factor much harder for girls to change. Boys, on the other hand, tend to attribute failure to more controllable circumstances.

The phenomenon has been traced in part to how teachers talk to students. In observational studies, teachers corrected girls for mistakes related to ability, while boys tended to get more behavioral interventions (“Pipe down!”, “Stop throwing that paper airplane,” and so on).

Other studies have found that girls are more likely to give up in the face of a stressful academic situation. In one study, fifth-grade students were given a task that was intentionally confusing. It was the girls who were derailed by the confusion and unable to learn the material. Notably, the highest-IQ girls struggled the most. The phenomenon continues in college, where Harvard economist Claudia Goldin found it was women dropping out of Intro to Economics when they failed to get A’s.

In the early 2000s, a new gender difference in how kids experience failure was identified. “Stereotype threat” — the burden girls face when dealing with the stereotype that they are “bad” at math and science — has been linked to their underperformance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Less known is how stereotype threat makes failure more bruising for girls. It works like this: when girls buy into the stereotype that they’re bad at math, they don’t see a missed problem or poor grade as a correctible issue. Instead, it confirms what everyone else knows — that they simply have less ability. These experiences, researchers say, “add stress and self-doubt to [girls’] educational experiences and diminish their sense of belonging to the academic arena.”

Rescuing girls from failure makes them lose motivation — even more than boys. We learn best when we’re intrinsically motivated — that is, when we try something new for the sheer enjoyment of the experience. Intrinsic motivation is one of learning’s most precious resources. It bolsters us to stick out the tough moments of a challenge and pursue what we love to do.

Autonomy is one of three core ingredients of intrinsic motivation. In other words, we’re most inclined to want to learn when we can do it freely and of our own accord. When we believe others are interfering with our autonomy by trying to control our performance — say, by offering rewards, threatening punishment or offering certain kinds of praise — our motivation plummets.

Professors Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, pioneers in the study of motivation, say girls are more vulnerable to having their autonomy and motivation threatened. Because girls are raised to please others, they tend to care more about feedback from teachers and parents — and so are more sensitive to feeling controlled.

Females, Deci and Ryan have written, “pay particular attention to evidence of having pleased the evaluator when praised.” That’s why multiple studies find that girls show more negative outcomes when they are praised in ways that pressure them to keep performing at a high level.

In one study, praising elementary-school students for fixed traits and abilities, like being “smart” or “nice,” undermined intrinsic motivation for girls, but not boys. Another study found that in success situations, boys were more comfortable with praise that focused on their abilities, while girls were more comfortable with effort praise (“You worked hard”).

So what does work for girls? One study found that using informational praise to describe a good performance (“You did very well on that test”), instead of making an interpretation of it (“You’re so smart”), increased girls’ intrinsic motivation. Praising effort (“You worked really hard on that”) over ability has consistently been proven to motivate all kids, and especially girls.

Failing well is a skill. Letting girls do it gives them critical practice coping with a negative experience. It also gives them the opportunity to develop a kind of confidence and resilience that can only be forged in times of challenge. Besides this, girls need educators and parents to challenge stereotype threat, reminding them that ability can always be improved with effort, and that who they are will not determine where they end up.

Lahey says that saving kids from failure sends the message that we think they’re “incompetent, incapable and unworthy of our trust.” That’s why giving kids the space to screw up, as Lahey advises, is so important — and will be particularly so for girls.

It is harder to raise the comeback kid than the golden child. And better.

KJ Dell’Antonia

It's the slog through the mud that matters. Especially if it isn't mud.

It’s the slog through the mud that matters. Especially if it isn’t mud.

What does success look like for your kid?

I think, to many of us, success—happiness, satisfaction, goals met—is supposed to look easy. Some of that is our culture. Our icons of cool tend to take it easy; they sail in and save the day with a few clever turns of phrase and without a hair out of place.

But much of it is just how we want life to be, minute by minute, for our children. We so want them to get the A, to make the team, to score the lead, to be surrounded by friends and applause. Who hasn’t envied the friend with the golden child, the one with all the gifts, who seems to sail through life so effortlessly, always in the front of the pack? Life seems like it must be so easy with the child who has it made; you’re not dealing with disappointment and frustration and envy and self-doubt, there’s no watching the child get up and face the morning when every single other child who auditioned made the school dance troop except for her and one other girl, and the whole team is right out front welcoming the new members.

But if you can just take the long view, you really want your kid to have to face that morning.

We know we should let our kids fail. The trouble is, what most of us are really hoping for is “failure light.” We want to steel ourselves, refuse to bring in a few forgotten lunches and let them take in a pitiful, last-minute second grade State Fair project—and then they learn! And it’s all smooth sailing!! In our hearts, we’d still rather see our children ace the test the first time, make the team as a freshman and get in early decision to their college of choice. Those second and third chance comeback stories are great for other people, but not for our children.

We are so wrong when we think like that.

Of course we want every happiness and joy possible for our children. Those short horizon triumphs, though, don’t necessarily help our kids make their own way into their futures. Don’t hope your kids sail straight into the Ivies. Hope your kids know what they want and what it takes to get it. Teach your kids to believe, with every fiber of their beings, that they can pick themselves up and turn themselves around and make something happen in the face of any setback.

We have a tendency to think that a second chance is second best. The child who got into the university right off is the one who really belongs there, not the one who managed to transfer after a year of excelling at a community college. All the celebrity goes to the 18-year-old who heads straight to the majors, not to the 28-year-old who gets there after slogging  for a decade. Why do we want to be “born with it,” to “wake up this way,” to be a “natural,” when it’s work that breeds success? Even when we ourselves are the ones who had to work to get where we are, we question our own achievements, struggle with imposter syndrome and talk ourselves out of pursuing opportunities (especially if we’re women).

Forget the golden child. Forget the minute by minute. As I wrote in my last email, there are very few “universal truths” of parenthood, but here’s another one: What you want for your child now may not lead to what you want for your child in the future.  It’s hard to help a child through a failure, but it’s among the most important things we do. We’re there. We listen. We nod. We hug. We let them rant their way through the “I will never” and the “I can’t” and the “that wasn’t fair” into the “if only I’d” and “why didn’t I” and then through the crying and the self-incrimination and the fear until they get to “next time…”

It may take hours and it may take days, and that’s fine. When failure turns into “not yet” or “what’s next,” you can help your child to start making her own magic. Will she get up the morning after her name isn’t on the roster for the basketball team, congratulate her friends, then go out and shoots hoops, and beg for the ride to the Y, and takes every opportunity to show the coaches that next year, she’ll be ready? Or will he persuade the drama teacher to teach him how to run the light board in the school auditorium because he’s realized it’s the illusion, even more than the performances, that captivates him? Can she own her disappointment and make a plan, or turn her anger into determination? Can he try again, or set his sights—with excitement—on something else?

The kid who can start again is the kid who is ready for the long game.

Lots of us tend to think of “grit” as something that’s reserved for the children who have obvious challenges. It’s what gets them to the Ivy League from the projects, or earns them a top SAT score in spite of dyslexia. But grit is really just what gets you up when you’re down, what walks you into the classroom to say, I screwed this up, how can I make it better, or what lets you pursue the weird side interest, like studying the dirt that’s left in the hole when everyone else is digging for gold. It’s drive and it’s will and it’s flexibility. Raise a child who wants something (pretty much anything) and knows how to make a plan for getting there, and you’ve raised someone who will get somewhere, no matter how long it takes.

What do Students Lose by Being Perfect? Valuable Failure

Mind Shift

By Holly Korbey

AUGUST 12, 2015

In the first pages of Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz writes, “In our collective imagination, error is associated not just with shame and stupidity but also with ignorance, indolence, psychopathology, and moral degeneracy.” This cultural terror of messing up, combined with modern modes of parenting and schooling obsessed with narrow versions of academic and career “success,” are making students more than risk-averse.

Books like How to Raise an Adult and Teach Your Children Well say kids are coming to college “underconstructed,” at best unsure of who they are and where they fit, at worst anxious and depressed, because their parents have protected them from the uncomfortable and unacceptable state of being wrong. Focused on getting the grades or winning the game and excused from helping out around the house, these children have internalized the pressure, and it’s morphed into a monster that paralyzes kids in their ability to take risks, screw up, find out the consequences and learn from their mistakes.

Parent and educator Jessica Lahey, author of the new book The Gift of Failure, wants parents (and teachers) to back off. She said it’s time for adults to do the responsible thing and let the children fail. Trying something and failing, she writes, is how children learn and make discoveries about themselves and the world around them. This applies to unloading the dishwasher as well as the science fair. Becoming autonomous gives children pride in themselves and their abilities, and makes them independent thinkers and doers who can cope with the ups and downs of life.

Stop bringing forgotten homework to school, Lahey tells the parents of her students.

But it will be messy, and adults should expect as much. To Lahey’s credit, The Gift of Failure defiantly rejects the binary choices of either “triumphant or bumbling adulthood” as end goals, and sees growing up as a series of peaks and valleys with lots of time to figure things out in between. Instead, she offers practical advice, steeped in the latest research, on how to let kids find their own way as parents and teachers guide them, the key word being guide — not instruct, dictate, or enable. Giving kids autonomy may or may not make them a big “success,” but the research supports that it will make kids happier, less anxious and depressed, and more fulfilled to work towards agency in their own lives.

Lahey taught middle school for more than a dozen years, and said that in that period of time, she watched as kids went from cautious to take risks to too terrified to even make a move — write a sentence, for example — without considering what people might think or how it would affect their grade.

“The thing I began to notice was not the fear of an ‘F’, it was the fear of any mistake,” she said. “It’s not that students couldn’t get to a final draft, they couldn’t get even their ideas down. From a teacher’s point of view, that’s a nightmare! If they can’t take a risk, then certainly they aren’t raising their hand with an I-wanna-try-this-idea-out kind of thing.”

Many educators already know this, but what to do about it? Educators can play a crucial part in helping kids to get comfortable with failure, which Lahey calls “autonomy-supportive teaching” and goes hand-in-hand with “autonomy-supportive parenting.” She says there are ways educators can encourage parents to let go, and here are a few:

Encourage parents to think of raising a child as a long-haul job

Stop bringing forgotten homework to school, Lahey tells the parents of her students. And stop stressing over how your daughter will do on next week’s quiz: instead, focus on what your daughter can learn if she does it all herself, without nagging and pestering and pressure. If she does indeed fail the quiz, she may be forced to ask herself what went wrong, and what she could do better next time. Parenting is a long-haul job, Lahey says, and parents and teachers need to think more about what’s going to make kids happy in the long term. In the case of the quiz, the short-term goal is getting an ‘A,’ but the long-term goal of self-sufficiency eclipses that minor ‘A’ by a long shot.

“It’s so freeing!” she said. “You can stop worrying about the stupid details of the moment-to-moment junk, and start focusing on the big things. Just think about where your kid was one year ago today. They’re amazing!” Lahey said she’s not sure if adults just forget, or worry that’s not true. She suspects, though, that parents don’t see the amazing growth in kids because they aren’t given the opportunity to show it very often.

Focus on Process Instead of Product

Lahey confesses this is a tricky balance, especially since schools today are inherently — almost obsessively — focused on product (and may inadvertently be contributing to parents’ anxieties over academic success). But there are ways to get around that, she says.

Adjust expectations (and grades) to make room for real student work. In the book, Lahey asks a kindergarten teacher what her kids can do that their parents don’t think they can. She responds: “Everything!” In autonomy-supportive teaching, work that students plan and orchestrate themselves will look like — well, like a kid did it. That means no more science projects worthy of their own Nobel. “Teachers need to move their expectations as well. Our lines for where grades should be have creeped up anyway, based on our expectations for what the product should look like. Our expectations have been skewed by the work of the parents.”

Lahey knows that teachers love to hear that a parent has decided to make the child more responsible for his own learning: “If you tell your teacher you’re making the move to more autonomy-supportive parenting, and to please hold your child to consequences without letting the kid off the hook? If you ask the teacher to help you through this — that this is the only way your child is going to learn? Just knowing when a parent is interested in supporting a student’s voice and ability to speak up for themselves: a teacher will kiss you on the lips for that!”

Back Away From the Parent Portal

One of the biggest pitfalls to autonomy-supportive parenting, Lahey says, are the parent portal websites, with access to up-to-the-minute feedback about scores and grades. Lahey and her husband decided to forgo the parent portal for their older child. They handed the password over to their son, telling him he’d need to let them know if he was in academic trouble. Some of her friends were shocked, “as if we were defaulting on our parental duty,” she writes. “I disagree. Checking in on children’s grades is a type of surveillance, which is one of the forms of control and is often mentioned in the research as an enemy of autonomy and intrinsic motivation.”

For parents who decide to forego the parent portal (or only check it occasionally), Lahey recommends sending a note to teachers about the decision, explaining that your student is now responsible for her own communication information.

Consider the Fear of Failure May Affect More Kids Than You Think

Some educators have called out the rash of overparenting books as only written for a few upper-class parents; some have called The Overstressed American Child “a myth.” Many students are well-acquainted with failure, both their own personal shortcomings as well as the systemic failures of their schools and homes. While Lahey openly admits that The Gift of Failure doesn’t apply to everyone, she cautions that it’s not just the 1% who are terrified of their kids failing: “What I did find out by talking to teachers, is that it’s far more pervasive than we thought,” Lahey said. “We’re talking about a big chunk, a lot of middle class kids are getting the same kind of pressure,” as kids at the top. Many times, she said, the pressure’s even greater if a family doesn’t have the means to pay for college — especially when it comes to sports and scholarships.

Fear of failure destroys the love of learning

In chapter 2, Lahey relates the story of one of her students, capable and intelligent Marianna, who has “sacrificed her natural curiosity and and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault.”

We taught her that her potential is tied to her intellect, and her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfection.

Above all else, we have taught her to fear failure, and that fear has destroyed her love of learning.

And this is the real shame: fear of failure taints the waters of learning, keeping kids from taking risks. Making failure normal — even celebrated — Lahey contends, may be uncomfortable in the short-term, but in the long haul makes for happier, more confident kids.

Brutally Honest: Is it OK to let your child fail?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
January 20, 2015

In ‘Brutally Honest’ series, Kelly Wallace tackles provocative parenting questions
An article on why parents should let their children fail went viral in January 2013
Studies: Helicopter parenting can lead to more depressed and less confident adults

Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)Recently, my younger daughter left her class project, a time capsule, at the door so I would see it the minute I got home.

Her project wasn’t due for a month, and she took it upon herself to start it and finish it. I beamed at her great work ethic.

If the story ended here, I would proudly say I am one of those parents who is totally comfortable with the whole “letting my kids fail” concept, but alas, there is more.

You see, even though my daughter worked hard to create a unique time capsule — complete with a slipper, miniature soccer and basketball, chess set, Pokemon cards and cordless phone — I worried that the other kids, probably with help from their parents, would have much more elaborate and highly constructed time capsules. Plus, I thought my daughter didn’t quite complete the assignment.

She wanted to bring the project in the following morning. “I put my heart into it,” she told me.

No-brainer, right? But no, I was torn between not wanting to crush her spirit and making sure her project was viewed positively by her teacher and peers.
I think you can probably guess which feeling won out. She brought the project in after the weekend — and only after I had her re-read the assignment and add decorations and information.

There is no doubt in my mind she was prouder of her work before I meddled. Why on earth did I do such a thing?

Many of us good, well-meaning parents are scared of our children “not being right all the time” and are motivated by a desire to buck up our kids’ self-esteem when we’re actually doing more harm than good, according to Jessica Lahey, author of the upcoming book “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” which will be released in August.

Lahey, who has spent more than a decade teaching middle and high school students, has become somewhat of an expert in this area, after her article “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail” in The Atlantic back in January 2013 went viral.

The article included an unforgettable anecdote: Lahey called a parent to inform her that her child would be punished for plagiarism only to learn from the mother that she, not her daughter, wrote the entire paper.

Sure, an extreme case, but an example of what many parents do, thinking they are actually helping their children.

“Every single time we turn around and say, ‘I’ll just do that for you’ or ‘Here let me help you with that,’ we are saying to them, ‘I don’t think you can do that for yourself,’ ” said Lahey, who is also a columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to The Atlantic and Vermont Public Radio.
“And that is really damaging over time. We create a really helpless culture of kids so that now when I talk to college professors, they say these kids show up to college unable to handle anything on their own.”

The research backs up just how dangerous our inability to let our children stumble and figure things out on their own can be for them as young adults.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that helicopter parenting can lead to anxiety and depression in college students, and decreased feelings of autonomy and competence.

Another investigation, this one led by the University of Arizona, found that adults who were overparented have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and more doubt about their ability to overcome challenges.

The study also found that helicopter parents have dependent and neurotic kids.

Why do we do it?

Part of the reason we step in, says Lahey, is because we want our kids to love us.

“We want to feel needed and so when we take that homework assignment to school for them and rescue them, we feel we get to check that box off today. ‘I was a good parent,'” said Lahey.
She writes in the book about her own struggles, how one morning, her younger child, who is now 11, worked really hard on his homework assignment and then left it on the coffee table.

“And I took to Facebook (and wrote) ‘Just for those of you who think this is easy for me, that homework assignment is sitting there on the table.'”

She did not take the homework to school, as at least one member of her Facebook community suggested she do, and was on “tenterhooks” all day, she said.

“But he came home at the end of the day and he’s like, ‘It’s fine. I talked to my teacher,'” said Lahey. “Giving kids the opportunity to problem solve when something goes wrong, there’s nothing better than that and when we take that away from them, it’s a real tragedy.”
In conversations with parents across the country, there was definite disagreement over just what letting a child fail means and just how far a parent can take it.

“I think when you use the word ‘fail’ you alienate a lot of people,” said the children’s television host Miss Lori, a mom of three. “I believe in allowing my children to stumble.”

Teaching them how to get up again is enormously important, said the social media strategist and Babble.com contributor. “But fail, not so much, especially in school. Our education system is already failing them in most cities. Their school resume is too important and they have too few years to amass it.”

Allowing kids to “fail” has different meanings to parents, says Vicki Hoefle, author of “Duct Tape Parenting: A Less is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids.”

“And this is where some of the confusion comes in. Allowing your first-grader to fail a spelling test because they did study is much easier for a parent to deal with than allowing your eight-grader to fail science because he chose not to study and will have to repeat the class over the summer,” said Hoefle, whose newest book, “The Straight Talk on Parenting,” will be released in April.
Balance is key, says Avital Norman Nathman, a mom of an 8-year-old in Northhampton, Massachusetts, who blogs at The Mamafesto. We shouldn’t always let our kids “hang out to dry,” but we also need to realize part of our desire to see our kids succeed is our own ego.

“We see our successes in our own children so when we allow them to fail, that also kind of reflects on us … and so it’s uncomfortable but we need to get there because otherwise we’re going to have these helpless kids who either feel incredibly entitled and who would want that, or helpless, they don’t know how to do things for themselves,” said Norman Nathman, editor of the motherhood anthology “The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality.”

If we’re hurting our kids, how do we stop doing it?

In many ways, it’s so much easier not to let our kids fail, parents say.

Cecily Kellogg of Philadelphia remembers when her 8-year-old joined their local Junior Roller Derby team. In the middle of the first practice, she skated over to her mom shaking and crying because she felt she was slower than everyone and didn’t know the moves. She wanted to leave immediately, but her mom refused to take her home.

Her daughter was clinging to her, but Kellogg pried herself away and left her to her coaches.

The next practice her daughter still felt embarrassed and ashamed she wasn’t an expert but agreed to go inside the rink only after her mother left.

“Boy oh boy, did I want her to quit. Both times I walked away from her, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Kellogg. “Now? She’s absolutely crazy about roller derby and loves it. Can’t wait to go each week.”

Kellogg says the experience was not just about allowing her daughter to “fail” and learning the “hard way she wasn’t going to be the very best at what she did without practice.” It was also about “pushing her to keep going without letting her quit.”

Lahey says her biggest piece of advice for parents is to move away from any focus on the end results, namely grades and test scores.

Let your kids make up their short-term goals, she suggests, which could include everything from making more friends at school to cleaning their room seven days in a row to making the roller derby team.

“If … they don’t achieve them, that’s OK, yes, they failed at something. They failed to achieve their goals, but what are the consequences? It’s nothing.”

Bigger Gains for Students Who Don’t Get Help Solving Problems

MindShift

 | February 25, 2014

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CCarlstead

“Let them eat cake,” said Marie Antoinette. Should teachers, parents, and managers say of the learners in their charge, “Let them struggle”?

Allowing learners to struggle will actually help them learn better, according to research on “productive failure” conducted by Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore. Kapur’s investigations find that while the model adopted by many teachers and employers when introducing others to new knowledge—providing lots of structure and guidance early on, until the students or workers show that they can do it on their own—makes intuitive sense, it’s not the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start.

In a recent study published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, Kapur and a co-author, Katerine Bielaczyc, applied the principle of productive failure to mathematical problem solving in three schools in Singapore. With one group of students, the teacher provided intensive “scaffolding”—instructional support—and feedback. With the teacher’s help, these pupils were able to find the answers to their set of problems.

Meanwhile, a second group was directed to solve the same problems by collaborating with one another, absent any prompts from their instructor. These students weren’t able to complete the problems correctly. But in the course of trying to do so, they generated a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like. And when the two groups were tested on what they’d learned, the second group “significantly outperformed” the first.

The struggles of the second group have what Kapur calls a “hidden efficacy”: they lead people to understand the deep structure of problems, not simply their correct solutions. When these students encounter a new problem of the same type on a test, they’re able to transfer the knowledge they’ve gathered more effectively than those who were the passive recipients of someone else’s expertise.

In the real world, problems rarely come neatly packaged, so being able to discern their deep structure is key. But, Kapur notes, none of us like to fail, no matter how often Silicon Valley entrepreneurs praise the salutary effects of an idea that flops or a start-up that crashes and burns. So, he says, we need to “design for productive failure” by intentionally managing the way learners fail.

Kapur has identified three conditions that promote a beneficial struggle. First, choose problems to work on that “challenge but do not frustrate.” Second, provide learners with opportunities to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. Third, give learners the chance to compare and contrast good and bad solutions to the problems.

By allowing learners to experience the discomfort of struggle first, and the triumph of understanding second, we can ensure that they have their cake and eat it, too

Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail

Bloomberg Review

I’m on the road this week, giving talks on my new book about learning to fail better: that is, first, to give ourselves the permission to take on challenges where we might very well fail; second, to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don’t work out. This is, I argue, vital on a personal level, as well as vital for the economy, because that’s where innovation and growth come from.

The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself.

And this is what she asked me:

“I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”

I was floored. All I could think as I talked to this poor girl is “America, you’re doing it wrong.”

I was 15 in 10th grade. If you can’t try something new in 10th grade, when can you? If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven’s sake, when is going to be the right time? When you’re ready to splash out on an edgy assisted-living facility?

Now is when this kid should be learning to dream big dreams and dare greatly. Now is when she should be making mistakes and figuring out how to recover from them. Instead, we’re telling one of our best and brightest to focus all her talent on coloring within the lines. This is not the first time I’ve heard this from kids and teachers and parents. But I’ve never heard it phrased quite so starkly.

Let me enumerate all the ways that this is a bad idea:

  • She is spending her high school years in terror of making the slightest mistake. Even if that was necessary to success — and it’s not — surely she’ll have plenty of time later to agonize about putting a foot out of place. Why not let her wait until she’s, I dunno, 20?
  • At the time in her life when failure should have the lowest cost, she should be learning to try things that are great, and maybe a little crazy. And, also, learning how to identify when your great, crazy idea isn’t working so well. And to move on after the occasional embarrassing flop. Apparently, she can’t afford to do any of that, because it might jeopardize her perfect grade-point average.
  • The subjects that she is most likely to avoid are the ones she’s unfamiliar with — and the ones that are especially difficult. So we’re taking insanely bright, hardworking kids and discouraging them from trying things that they might be great at, because what if they got a B instead of an A?
  • We are drilling into their heads that success consists of jumping through a series of hoops to please authority. Of course, this is a valuable skill that everyone needs to learn, because hey, that’s part of life. But it is far from the only skill, and it is certainly not the most valuable one we could teach.
  • We are also teaching her that success is doing what comes easiest, which is the opposite of true.
  • The longer this kid goes without failing, the more dreadful it will come to seem. When you’ve never coped with failure, it often comes to seem imperative that you arrange your life so that it never happens. Since that’s not actually possible, you spend a lot of time trying to arrange away the inevitable.
  • And when the inevitable comes, you are in no way prepared to handle it. I watched a lot of MBAs and tech wizards melt down after 2001 because they had done everything they were supposed to and how could they possibly be out of a job? From the way we carried on (and I include myself), you would have thought the law of gravity had been repealed.

America needs more bright, hardworking kids taking on challenging academic work. But it does not need them to learn that success is a formula — or a zero-sum game in which the race goes to the safest. In fact, that’s exactly the opposite of what we need — and more important, it’s the opposite of what those kids need.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the pressure this kid is under. I too agonized about getting into a good college — and wept when I didn’t get into my first choice. But no one told me at the age of 15 that I’d better focus all my energies on being absolutely perfect. (And I sure wasn’t!) I was talking about this with my father the other day, and he said that was a deliberate choice my parents made. “If you can’t screw up in high school,” he said, “it’s hard to think of a better time.”

But we have become crazy on the subject of college. Now, more than ever, we view a college degree as an absolute prerequisite for a minimally decent life. And if we’re in the upper middle class, it has to be a degree from an elite school. Kids who a generation or two ago would have gone to a local college, or the state university, are now applying to Harvard University. And since the number of slots at those elite colleges has barely budged, parents are essentially trying to push an ever-larger number of kids through a medium-sized funnel.

To keep their kids from falling off the side, they’re pushing them harder than ever — micromanaging their lives, orchestrating things so that their children have as little opportunity as possible to go astray. It’s totally understandable. But it’s bad for the kids, bad for the parents, and bad for the nation.

(The flip side, of course, is even worse: As getting into college becomes a team sport, poor kids are becoming like Nadia Comaneci. They need to hit everything just right, make a perfect 10, or they’ll never get the gold. One mistake will knock them clear out of the running, because there’s no one around to make sure they get back on track.)

This is insane. It’s insane because everyone hates it — parents, kids, even college admissions officers. It’s insane because it is not producing better citizens, or more productive citizens, or happier citizens. Rather the opposite, in fact.

It’s insane because there is no formula.

One of my favorite books is “Popular Crime,” by the great Bill James. And this is one of my favorite passages:

First of all, as I see it, no one has any ability whatsoever to figure out what is going to be important to people. I look back on my own life. When I was in high school I had two habits that greatly irritated my teachers; actually, many more than two, but let’s focus. One was writing funny notes to my classmates, trying to make them crack up in the middle of class. The other was spending hours of valuable study time making mystifying totals from the agate type in the sports pages. I was called on the carpet any number of times and told to stop doing this stuff and pay more attention to What Was Really Important.

As I look back on those years, the two most useful things that I was doing, in terms of preparing me for my career, were 1) Writing humorous notes to my classmates, and 2) Making mystifying totals from the agate type in the sports pages. By writing amusing if vulgar notes to my classmates, I was learning to write — not learning to write in a way that would please English teachers, but learning to write in a way that would hold the interest of people who had no reason to read the note, other than the expectation that they would enjoy reading it. That’s much, much closer to writing books than writing insipid research papers to please bored English teachers. The adults in charge thought they knew what was important, but in retrospect they were just completely wrong.

At the personal level, most of us could attest to this — you never know what will end up being important, but it’s probably not what you think. And at the economy level, this is basically a pithy summation of what economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed “creative destruction”: the process by which old ideas, and companies, and even markets are destroyed in order that something previously undreamt-of can replace them.

Do we want a society that dreams new things and then makes them happen? I hear that we do, every time I hear a teacher, or a politician, give a speech. So why are we trying so hard to teach the next generation to do the exact opposite?

To contact the writer of this article:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
James Gibney at +1-202-624-1863 or jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

Helicopter parenting has crippled American teenagers. Here’s how to fix it.

Slate

 

driven teen.
The key is figuring out how to get teenagers to tune into their own motivation.
Photo by Bevan Gold Swain/Thinkstock

Ian was sitting at his usual place during what his parents had decreed was his nightly homework time. But he had his chair turned away from his open books and calculator, and he was removing the fourth raw hot dog from the package. He gingerly placed it sideways on the family dog Walter’s muzzle and commanded him to “walk.” Ian got the idea after a liberal sampling of YouTube’s stupid pet trick videos.

Ian’s mother, Debbie, peeked in on her son and then turned around to stare at her husband. It was a look that said: “Your turn. Get him back to his homework. I’ve reached my limit today.”

“Ian, its almost 8, let’s get going!” Michael yelled.

Four minutes passed.

“Ian, if you don’t get started now, I will not help you with your math.”

Ian commenced homework but soon drifted to watching more dumb pet tricks on YouTube.

Michael and Debbie had realized early that Ian was extremely bright but that he couldn’t often work up to his capabilities. He was disorganized, easily distracted (the stupid pet tricks!), and discouraged by the slightest failure. So they did what many dedicated parents do these days: turn themselves into a rodeo tag team to keep him on track at his competitive Washington, D.C., private school. Every evening, they reviewed his homework assignments, made a list of priorities, kept track of upcoming tests, reviewed long-term projects, and made plans to get a tutor if the work was confusing. Then the next night, they did it again.

Lately, we have been schooled on the hell that is adolescence, and more specifically, the collateral damage this phase of life inflicts on parents. The recent New York magazine cover story includes several examples of families locked in the kinds of pointless battles I just described. The stories might leave parents who read them with a strong sense of recognition, and also hopelessness. But as a clinical psychologist specializing in family systems, my job is to help parents and kids get past the deadlock. The key, it turns out, is figuring out how to get kids like Ian to tune into their own motivation to get their work done, and to get the parents to tune out of their motivation to shield their kids from failure and disappointment.

“Ian” and his family are recent patients of mine at my private Washington, D.C., practice, and the teenager has the typical profile of many I see. They are often boys, smart but underachieving, possibly with some diagnosis—ADHD, a learning disability, or something on the autistic spectrum. Their parents work diligently to help them succeed: cajoling and pleading and threatening and occasionally employing more intrusive techniques copied from mob debt collectors. The worthy goal of these enormous efforts is to insure that these kids feel good about themselves, and failure to achieve that goal is often equated with failure as a parent. I consider it my job to teach every member of the family to succeed a little less and fail a lot more in the service of a greater goal, developing character. Teaching them to make space for failure is a monumental task and often requires begging on my part.

In my nearly 30 years as a psychologist and family therapist, I’ve learned that parents can only play one of two possible roles at any given time: cheerleader or Texas high-school football coach. The cheerleader’s main goal is to keep the spirits up. As soon as the child is born, he is offered fun activities that are sometimes mildly challenging, so long as they leave the glow of “something positive just happened” —stimulating crib toys, managed play dates, rec sports. The cheerleader has learned to “praise the effort, not the outcome” so mom and dad ignore the score and pass out prizes to all. The coach’s main job, on the other hand, is to build character. Built into that lesson is an assumption of challenge and possible, eventual failure. The aim is to develop a “character repertoire” that includes willpower and the ability to delay gratification and to accept hardship as part of life.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that we live in an era of cheerleaders. Manysociologists and parenting experts have diagnosed (and complained) about this prevalent style. In my experience the approach works well in the younger years; there is something charming about encouraging effort over just winning, about boosting self-esteem. But then in the middle-school years it often all comes crashing down. The kids are wholly unprepared for what they’ll face and the parents, stuck in cheerleading mode, wind up like Michael and Debbie, like the parents Jennifer Senior profiles in the New York magazine cover story: desperate to “bring back that loving feeling”—the positive glow and sense of parental gratification.

Over the past decade Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck have conducted six studies of 412 fifth graders, ages 10 through 12, comparing the goals and achievements of children praised for their intelligence with those of youngsters commended for making an effort. “Praising children’s intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviors such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks,” said Dweck, lead author of the study. Po Bronson warned about the risks of this parenting error in his 2007 story “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.” Keep praising middle-school kids who are struggling and their grades might never recover, he writes, because they never learn strategies to deal with failure.

So what can parents do? Unfortunately, it’s really hard to motivate parents to shift from cheerleading to coaching mode this late in the game. It’s no fun, and it is not rewarding for parent nor child. It is also counterintuitive, particularly for parents who have spent more than a decade helping their child be as happy as possible and avoid pain. It requires parents to be witnesses to minor and possibly major train wrecks: getting F’s for missed homework, being sucked into the black hole of online games, discovering marijuana—things that make pet tricks look like harmless fun by comparison. The phase requires parents to tolerate anxiety, self-doubt, and failure, not just in their child but—even harder in some ways—in themselves as parents.

But it’s absolutely critical because parents and their kids construct a reality together that at this stage only the parents can undo. As parents, we can get caught in the day-to-day unfolding “story”—the simplest sequence of events in our lives. We find places for our child to have fun and succeed. He is happy. We are good parents. We are happy. End of story.

What I try to do is get parents to appreciate some grander “narrative” —a system of stories, related to each other, that extends the single “story,” say, a failure to prepare for a test, into a larger evolving narrative. Along with David Black, a clinician and research neuropsychologist at the National Institutes of Health, I am developing a program called “Transitions X: Working With Families to Build Autonomy” that includes many such experiments in teaching middle- and high-school parents and their at-risk kids independence. What’s hard is getting the parent commandos to commit to an exit strategy of gradual, real troop withdrawal because it feels to them like neglect or even abuse. We want them to evolve from what has been referred to as “Helicopter Parents” to “U-2 Parents”: observers instead of combatants—present, attentive, but largely undetected from such a distance.

So let’s say Ian spends the night before an exam doing pet tricks instead of studying, but this time, his parents, Michael and Debbie, refrain from the usual exhortations. (This is a true story, names changed) Ian fails the test, and he is demoralized. The next week he does the same thing again and still they don’t intervene. This time he’s also angry. “This really sucks, and it is your fault!” he yells at his parents. He is called into the dean’s office and asked to account for his drop in grades. The dean tells him he has to improve his performance or he’ll get placed in a lower math level.

Ian is still angry at his parents for “not caring” about him, but he really doesn’t wantto get a math demotion. This is the first time it’s occurred to him that he might not get into a great college, which is what his parents have been signaling to him is his inevitable fate. It takes a lot of work to get his parents to stick with the program at this point. Michael and Debbie were really worried he would become overwhelmed or even break down. I convinced them that if they intervened now, they would only be delaying a train wreck until the first year of college. Sooner or later, he had to learn what to do when he failed.

Used to being bailed out by his parents, Ian was confused. Eventually he came up with the idea of asking his teacher for help. The teacher was willing to help but only if Ian made the appointments himself and showed up consistently. In these private meetings, Ian learned that his revered double honors math teacher had failed calculus the first time. The teacher was blunt in telling Ian that if he did not take responsibility for his own learning, he should give up on the idea of being a math or science major in college. Ian had been counting on this teacher for a strong recommendation. Once again, his sense of inevitable success was shaken, so he was scared into being responsible. Ian is still showing up for the appointments.

Motivating kids who have reached their teenage years without accruing much intrinsic motivation is a complicated affair. Some adolescents have been shown to dramatically increase their test scores with something as simple as the promise of M&M’s. For some kids—the confident ones—cheerleading by laying the compliments on thick spurs them to take on challenges. For the less confident kids, overpraising is disastrous.

The hardest part of the parents’ task is often the quid pro quo, insisting on getting some things from their kid up front, in return for the privilege—not the inevitability but the earned privilege—of going to college. Parents have to accept that the narratives are open-ended. One never knows which “failure” will be the tipping point for an adolescent toward more effort, self-reflection, assuming responsibility, in a word, discovering inner motivation.

The reason we need to make this shift is obvious if we think about our own lives. We can very often trace significant, unexpected growth in our adult lives as emerging out of disappointments and setbacks. Perhaps as a direct result of a failure, we encounter someone who becomes a pivotal mentor, who sees a spark in us we miss. We are denied admittance to what seems like the ticket to our early dream, only to discover our calling, more subtle but more configured to our values and strengths. If you need convincing, here is a blog that chronicles the unlikely ways that musicians, artists, and other creative types got their start. All of these experiences are painful in the short term, but ultimately, hopefully, lead to a shot at happiness.

 

Dan Griffin is a clinical psychologist and family therapist in the greater Washington area.

Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail

The Atlantic

A new study explores what happens to students who aren’t allowed to suffer through setbacks.

fail2-top.jpgMatthew Benoit/Shutterstock

Thirteen years ago, when I was a relatively new teacher, stumbling around my classroom on wobbly legs, I had to call a student’s mother to inform her that I would be initiating disciplinary proceedings against her daughter for plagiarism, and that furthermore, her daughter would receive a zero for the plagiarized paper.

“You can’t do that. She didn’t do anything wrong,” the mother informed me, enraged.

“But she did. I was able to find entire paragraphs lifted off of web sites,” I stammered.

“No, I mean she didn’t do it. I did. I wrote her paper.”

I don’t remember what I said in response, but I’m fairly confident I had to take a moment to digest what I had just heard. And what would I do, anyway? Suspend the mother? Keep her in for lunch detention and make her write “I will not write my daughter’s papers using articles plagiarized from the Internet” one hundred times on the board? In all fairness, the mother submitted a defense: her daughter had been stressed out, and she did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.

In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she re-wrote the paper. Herself. Sure, I didn’t have the authority to discipline the student’s mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.

While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences, and I gained a war story. I don’t even bother with the old reliables anymore: the mother who “helps” a bit too much with the child’s math homework, the father who builds the student’s science project. Please. Don’t waste my time.

The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.

I believed my accumulated compendium of teacher war stories were pretty good — until I read a study out of Queensland University of Technology, by Judith Locke, et. al., a self-described “examination by parenting professionals of the concept of overparenting.”

Overparenting is characterized in the study as parents’ “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In an attempt to understand such behaviors, the authors surveyed psychologists, guidance counselors, and teachers. The authors asked these professionals if they had witnessed examples of overparenting, and left space for descriptions of said examples. While the relatively small sample size and questionable method of subjective self-reporting cast a shadow on the study’s statistical significance, the examples cited in the report provide enough ammunition for a year of dinner parties.

Some of the examples are the usual fare: a child isn’t allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10 year-old’s food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16 year-old because he’s a picky eater. Yawn. These barely rank a “Tsk, tsk” among my colleagues. And while I pity those kids, I’m not that worried. They will go out on their own someday and recover from their overprotective childhoods.

What worry me most are the examples of overparenting that have the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. According to the the authors, parents guilty of this kind of overparenting “take their child’s perception as truth, regardless of the facts,” and are “quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature.”

This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.” One study participant described the problem this way:

I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.

These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.

I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.

I’m done fantasizing about ways to make that mom from 13 years ago see the light. That ship has sailed, and I did the best I could for her daughter. Every year, I reassure some parent, “This setback will be the best thing that ever happened to your child,” and I’ve long since accepted that most parents won’t believe me. That’s fine. I’m patient. The lessons I teach in middle school don’t typically pay off for years, and I don’t expect thank-you cards.

I have learned to enjoy and find satisfaction in these day-to-day lessons, and in the time I get to spend with children in need of an education. But I fantasize about the day I will be trusted to teach my students how to roll with the punches, find their way through the gauntlet of adolescence, and stand firm in the face of the challenges — challenges that have the power to transform today’s children into resourceful, competent, and confident adults.

Losing Is Good For You

The New York Times

By ASHLEY MERRYMAN
Published: September 24, 2013 

LOS ANGELES — AS children return to school this fall and sign up for a new year’s worth of extracurricular activities, parents should keep one question in mind. Whether your kid loves Little League or gymnastics, ask the program organizers this: “Which kids get awards?” If the answer is, “Everybody gets a trophy,” find another program.

Trophies were once rare things — sterling silver loving cups bought from jewelry stores for truly special occasions. But in the 1960s, they began to be mass-produced, marketed in catalogs to teachers and coaches, and sold in sporting-goods stores.

Today, participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, as children are constantly assured that they are winners. One Maryland summer program gives awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long. In Southern California, a regional branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization hands out roughly 3,500 awards each season — each player gets one, while around a third get two. Nationally, A.Y.S.O. local branches typically spend as much as 12 percent of their yearly budgets on trophies.

It adds up: trophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry in the United States and Canada.

Po Bronson and I have spent years reporting on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that kids respond positively to praise; they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart and so on. But after such praise of their innate abilities, they collapse at the first experience of difficulty. Demoralized by their failure, they say they’d rather cheat than risk failing again.

In recent eye-tracking experiments by the researchers Bradley Morris and Shannon Zentall, kids were asked to draw pictures. Those who heard praise suggesting they had an innate talent were then twice as fixated on mistakes they’d made in their pictures.

By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?

If I were a baseball coach, I would announce at the first meeting that there would be only three awards: Best Overall, Most Improved and Best Sportsmanship. Then I’d hand the kids a list of things they’d have to do to earn one of those trophies. They would know from the get-go that excellence, improvement, character and persistence were valued.

It’s accepted that, before punishing children, we must consider their individual levels of cognitive and emotional development. Then we monitor them, changing our approach if there’s a negative outcome. However, when it comes to rewards, people argue that kids must be treated identically: everyone must always win. That is misguided. And there are negative outcomes. Not just for specific children, but for society as a whole.

In June, an Oklahoma Little League canceled participation trophies because of a budget shortfall. A furious parent complained to a local reporter, “My children look forward to their trophy as much as playing the game.” That’s exactly the problem, says Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me.”

Having studied recent increases in narcissism and entitlement among college students, she warns that when living rooms are filled with participation trophies, it’s part of a larger cultural message: to succeed, you just have to show up. In college, those who’ve grown up receiving endless awards do the requisite work, but don’t see the need to do it well. In the office, they still believe that attendance is all it takes to get a promotion.

In life, “you’re going to lose more often than you win, even if you’re good at something,” Ms. Twenge told me. “You’ve got to get used to that to keep going.”

When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed. To do that, we need to refuse all the meaningless plastic and tin destined for landfills. We have to stop letting the Trophy-Industrial Complex run our children’s lives.

This school year, let’s fight for a kid’s right to lose.

Ashley Merryman is the author, with Po Bronson, of “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children” and “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.”

Making Friends With Failure

Edutopia

AUGUST 26, 2013

Image Credit: iStockphoto

No one likes failure, the F-word, no matter how you sugarcoat it. But failure is a part of life. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you don’t get what you want. Stuff happens. But if we recast these situations right, we learn to create a new normal, to persevere, to learn to be more flexible, or to redirect our energies.

Using the F-Word in School

There is a major disconnect between schools and the real world on the notion of failure. School teaches us there is only one answer for every problem. And if we don’t get it, we are a failure. This dissuades students from trying — they fear failure. We need to teach students how to make friends with failure.

flipped turtle 

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Failure is hard for everyone, but interestingly, it’s particularly hard for high-achieving students. They don’t know how to deal with this unfamiliar territory. It kills their spirit because their performance is so linked to their self-esteem. I’ve seen this firsthand as an Ivy-League professor, and it isn’t pretty. Some high achievers don’t deal with failure well. It can be so bad that some universities have decided to do something about it. In addition to the usual dorm counselors that can help students adjust to college life, Stanford University has created the Resilience Project, where prominent people, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, tell their stories of failure. While there is limited access to this website, it shows how important the skill of embracing failure can be.

We need to give our children more opportunities to build a relationship with failure. In my estimation, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is a key way to do it. In STEM, failure is a fact of life. Experiments don’t work out, the data doesn’t look right, or someone knocks over your experiment. There are plenty of places to learn persistence and resilience. We can also learn how failure is instructive to the design and innovation process. Science and innovation are based on trial-and-error (which is just a glorified way to say “fail a lot”). If children have to learn about failure, I would choose a setting where the stakes are not so high, and that would be with STEM.

One cure for the fear of failure is to rebrand it. As I say in my book Save Our Science, “Scientists fail all the time. We just brand it differently. We call itdata.” If you learned something from the experience, you did not fail. By rebranding failure to something as harmless as data, that failure loses its sting. Whatever you did was all part of a fact-finding mission!

Rebranding Failure

Schools have this failure-thing, the F-word, all wrong. They focus on getting the answer, but it is the questions and the mistakes that are actually more instructive. It’s in these spaces where we learn. I often hear students preface their question with, “This might sound stupid, but . . . ” Students fear sounding dumb — they fear being viewed as a failure. Shouldn’t it be OK to ask questions in a classroom?

We have to take the classroom back and make it a sacred space where asking questions is OK. And the instructor has to present vulnerability as well. If an instructor doesn’t know the answer, he or she must be brave enough to say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.” Education’s focus on the right answer and the grades has made students afraid to ask questions. Deborah Stipek, Dean of Stanford’s School of Education, writes in Science that schools incubate the fear of failure, which causes stress and anxiety to perform, which do not enhance learning.

This is ironic, since children are innately risk-takers. If there is a curb, they will try to balance on it. If there is a shiny object, they will reach out for it. This is how they discover the world. Failure and risk-taking are how they learn. However, that sense of discovery and wonder is squelched in the classroom. Testing removes our desire to take risks. We need to bring risk-taking back.

We need to teach children great stories of failure. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different materials before he found the right one for the light bulb filament. Failure? No, that’s data — lots of it. Or as he put it, he learned 9,999 ways that it didn’t work. To defuse the F-word, we should start Failure Clubs in our schools. At the meetings, students would report what they learned from taking a risk. We should award merit badges that would encourage children to take a risk, and we should ask them, “How did you fail? And what did you learn?”

To succeed, we must make friends with failure. Failure makes you a better, kinder, stronger and wiser human being.

Now, get out there and fail!