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The Gift of Failure

Failure is a gift we need give to our children. They cannot grow without making mistakes and building resilience. Nonetheless, it is painful. As a parent and an educator, I can say it is never easy to watch our children get their hopes squashed. It is never easy to sit back and see when they feel embarrassed about a wrong answer. It’s never easy to witness them making a poor decision. It is necessary, though. In fact, it’s our job.

When children know that it is okay to fail-that we all learn from our mistakes-they become resilient, they persevere, and they continue to grow. This year our staff started the school year by reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. This book, which is used in schools and workplaces all over the country, complements the Montessori Method perfectly. Through research and experiments, Dweck proves that we can continue to learn and grow in both intellect and in character. The brain is pliable, as adults we need to help our children learn how to sculpt their brains. One of the ways we can do this is by modeling imperfection (my specialty). Another way is through the influence of language.

We talk a lot about the “power of yet,” in education. This is the idea of answering the call of I can’t or I’m not good at it with one little word, “yet.” I’m not a great public speaker…yet, I’m not good at math…yet. We know that with time, practice, perseverance and resilience we can learn to do just about anything.

Children (and adults) do not benefit from continual criticism, nor do they benefit from empty praise. We need to give our children genuine support and feedback. This means that we acknowledge the effort and hard work instead of allowing children to assume success is based on natural talent (I’m good at it or I’m not). Again, this is something we have been doing in Montessori all along, and it is now recognized by many educators and neuropsychologists as best practices for success.

When we let our children make mistakes, they can recover easier from the judgment of others. When we teach them the power of “yet” and the importance of hard work, they can overcome disappointment.

When I was a college sophomore I applied to the school of education. The application process included meeting with the Dean of Education for an initial interview. I don’t remember much of the meeting at all, but I do remember this: he told me that he wasn’t so sure I had what it took to be an educator. I can’t remember why he said it. Was he basing the statement on my academic work, my interview skills or perhaps he said this to everyone, just to fire them up? If the plan was the latter, it worked. I remember only this: The Dean telling me he wasn’t so sure, and me, at barely nineteen years old, smiling and saying “I look forward to proving you wrong.” I went back to my dorm and worked harder than ever on my application and portfolio. I submitted my application and I was accepted into the program. The rest is history.

You probably have a similar story, too. A time when you were told you weren’t good enough or a time when you failed at something only to come back and be better than ever. These are the small moments that change our lives. I could have walked away from the School of Education that day and never looked back. Instead I worked harder than I knew I could to put forth an excellent portfolio. All of this came rushing back to me today when I saw this quote from Meryl Streep. It was accompanied by a photo of her on the subway in New York many years ago:

“This was me on my way home from an audition for King Kong where I was told I was too “ugly” for the part. This was a pivotal moment for me. This one rogue opinion could derail my dreams of becoming an actress or force me to pull myself up by the boot straps and believe in myself. I took a deep breath and said ‘I’m sorry you think I’m too ugly for your film but you’re just one opinion in a sea of thousands and I’m off to find a kinder tide. ’Today I have 18 Academy Awards.”

We need to teach our children that the road to their dreams may be filled with obstacles, and that’s okay. We need to teach them that mistakes and failures truly develop character. We need to model getting up when we are down and trying again when we want to just walk away. We need to support our children always, but not always rescue them. In order for them to succeed, we must let them fail.

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