Next Step Therapy Blog: Failure Is Not a Dirty Word

Tracy 1Tracy Cowles, CEO and owner of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article: “Failure Is Not a Dirty Word.”

I have written a lot lately about my oldest son who is a senior, and his successes at football, applying to college, and applying for scholarships. It has occurred to me that I need to temper that enthusiasm for being proud of my kids with an article about “when kids fail.”

Actually, I don’t really like the word “fail.” It implies that something was done incorrectly. In fact, to even have a “failure” means that someone tried to do something.

All successful people in this world, from Donald Trump to Bill Gates have SOMETHING that they can point to as an epic failure….filing for bankruptcy, rolling out a product that didn’t sell, losing a best friend….everyone has moments in their life that they look back on and say, “Ugh….not my best moment.” Our children not only will have those moments, but need to have those moments.

Each and every one of us has disappointments, pretty much on a daily basis. From waking up to a dreary, sunless day, to driving down the road with the “check engine” light on, you and I have “ugh” moments frequently. How many times have you bought lottery tickets, only to find that you won’t be buying your yacht this week? How many jobs did you apply for and didn’t get?

There are, unfortunately, too many parents in this world that “handle” every aspect of their child’s lives. They “make friends” for them via playdates, they help with homework, they intervene at school when it is totally not necessary. Now, we’re reading stories about parents that go with their adult children on interviews for jobs. WHAT????

Here is the problem: if you and I agree that life is full of disappointments, and we know darn well that our kids are going to experience disappointments, how can we not want/encourage them to have disappointments (failures) while they are young and you and I are there to lift them back up and wipe their tears? No child should become a 26 year old man and suffer their first crushing loss. How will they deal with it? How will they move on? It is up to you and I to teach them how to recover from that type of devastation. That is our job as parents.

EVERYTHING except breathing and swallowing is a learned experience after birth. Children learn to go to sleep. Children learn to ask for appropriate attention. Children learn to dress themselves, feed themselves, read and write….everything is learned. So is bouncing back after an unpleasant experience. A child who is never allowed to experience disappointment/failure/loss cannot possibly learn to handle it.

I have a friend with a daughter who is a senior this year. The daughter is so smart, so achingly talented….I love this young lady. Her thought process about college has changed over the past month. She wants to be in the arts. She wants to make it a career. A month ago, she was convinced that it was unrealistic. Last week, she toured a college for the arts. Now, she is auditioning for this school. She is, most likely, a nervous wreck, fearing failure. This school auditions thousands of students for only a few hundred slots. Will she make it? Will she get picked? What if she doesn’t have her best day? What if what they are looking for on that day is something other than her look? If she doesn’t get “in” will she be able to move past it, or will she succumb to depression? From my perspective, the answer was already “no” if she didn’t audition. Now it’s a maybe, because she had the guts to audition. If she auditions, and doesn’t make it “in,” she is already many times ahead of those who were too scared to audition. If she doesn’t “make it,” she has parents, extended family, friends, and people like me who will lift her up and tell her that just auditioning was a gutsy thing to do. We’ll be proud regardless of the outcome. She is going to need to be proud of herself for trying, regardless of the outcome. But….if she makes it????? How outstanding will that be? Finally, being accepted to this school or not, when she is forty with children of her own, she’ll be able to say, “I once auditioned for a prestigious school for the arts.” Much better than having regrets at forty that she didn’t choose to audition.

Hopefully you are seeing what I’m trying to get across here….in any given contest, whether it is a race, shooting for Valedictorian, or auditioning for a part, there can only be one “winner.” Sometimes your kid will be the winner. Sometimes they will be number two or three. Sometimes they won’t even place. Regardless of where your kid “ranks,” at least they had the guts to try. I find in my own life (parenting, running a business) that I can’t really be mad or disappointed in anyone when they at least gave it a shot. Because, there are a whole lot of people in this world that can’t be bothered to even give it a shot.

Sometimes people meet me at my business, or they read this blog, and they think, “Wow, she is successful for a woman in this area!” Well, yes, I guess I am. But, you know what? I wasn’t “gifted” in high school, by a long shot. I graduated just barely in the upper third of the class. I changed majors three times in college. I’ve been fired twice. YES, TWICE!!!! I opened this business, and then realized 30 days into it that the people that I needed to bill for services rendered had 90 days to pay me. I couldn’t make payroll for the next two months while waiting for the money. I had to borrow money from friends and family. I opened an outpatient office in Sharon, and had to close it two years later. I was wrong about the amount of business we would do there. I have had failures. Big ones. However, it is the ability to maneuver through a failure and recover from it, while learning a lesson from it that has made me successful.

It turns out, I wouldn’t be much of a company owner/manager, if I didn’t know how it feels to be fired. Maybe I wasn’t qualified to run a company if I didn’t know how devastating it could be to a career to be fired.

How did I make it through those (and many other) tough times? My parents never made me feel bad about failing, when I was willing to try. My parents had “failures” of their own, where things didn’t work out as planned, and you know what? They pulled themselves together and moved on. I learned from them. They were always more proud that I tried, than proud that I got an award. I have a small group of trusted friends who support me no matter what. When I suffer a “failure,” they group around me, pour us a drink, and say, “yeah, that sucked, but remember when you did this???”

You and I both know that nobody just hands you a happy, upward trajectory life. Lives are built. Failures can either knock you to your knees, or can spur you on to greater heights. “Failures” are either your arch enemy, or your reason to do better.

Along these same lines, I am always floored when an adult says to me, “Well, I’d like to go back and get my Master’s degree, but I’ll be 57 when I graduate.” Uh huh. How old will you be in seven years if you don’t go get the Masters’ degree? Yup, 57. You are either 57 with the degree, or 57 without the degree. Which would make you happier? “But what if I can’t do the work?” But, what if you can? And how will you ever know if you don’t apply and try?

When you look around your child’s class, I’m telling you that there are three kids in the running for the top three spots. It is based on IQ. Your kid is either there, or not there. In that class there are going to be five kids with significant athletic ability. Maybe another five with some athletic ability. Two kids are fabulous artists, while two kids can write poetry. They ALL have strengths and weaknesses, and one kid will be number one in one thing, while another kid is number one in something else. That is how it is supposed to be. One child shouldn’t be number one the whole way across the board, because if they are, they don’t have friends. Nobody likes them.

So, you say, hey what about that kid with special needs in the class? What is he number one in? Well, from my experience, sometimes he’s number one in being the most empathetic listener in the room. No, he is not an athlete, and he’s not going to be Valedictorian. He is, however, the one person in the room that makes the other kids feel better, because he listens. He is going to make a fabulous counselor someday.

The kid with Asperger’s? Yeah, he is socially inept, and not much of an athlete. He is, however, the kid that wins Districts Gifted competition for Robotics, or Presidents, or winds up owning his own multi-million dollar computer company.

Every kid out there has a talent. Every kid has a strength. Even if it is chopping wood, a strength, given the right parents, and the right opportunities, can become a life, and a career.

So, my advice for everybody today:

  1. Love your children unconditionally, through success and failures. Success is great, but failures build character and teach your children to handle life. Life is hard. Life is tough. Life is not for the weak.
  2. Let your children try things, even if you think that they won’t be successful. TRYING is way better than ruling themselves out, based on nothing.
  3. When your child “fails,” help them to see the lesson associated with the “failure.” Don’t punish them for failing….help them to see how that lesson is going to benefit them.
  4. Helicopter parents: God love you, people tear you up every day. I get it. Your parents didn’t support you. You love that kid more than anything, and want to give them every advantage. I get it. But, understand, if you die tomorrow, they won’t be able to function, because no one else will treat them like you did. If you have been doing their homework and essays, stop. Just stop. Tell your children, who you love with all of your heart, that you have helped them for the last three years, and it’s time for them to do it on their own. And, let them do it on their own. And, be happy when they get a 92%, and praise them, for getting a 92%, on their own.
  5. Understand that children don’t need to be screamed at. Hardly ever. If you want their respect, give them yours. When a tough situation comes up, sit down, like a grown up, and TALK about it. “Hey, son that I’m so proud of. You didn’t do well on this. I’m disappointed. You know better. What happened? Let’s TALK about this.” Just understand that you can scream “NO!” a million times, and that might stop a behavior, but it doesn’t teach them a desirable behavior. TEACH them a better, more appropriate, desirable behavior.
  6. If you have more than one child, understand that there is absolutely no reason on the planet for your children to be carbon copies of each other. Did you really want to live up to an older sibling? Of course not, you wanted to do you. Let your kids be themselves. I have one that is an athlete, good student, and can play a saxophone. The other has no interest in sports at all. Zip. He does, however, excel at playing percussion instruments, can write poetry that you and I wish we could pull off, and is a virtual genius at making presentations. One kid would pay money to never have to public speak again, while the other may very well make a living through public speaking. Does it disturb me, at all, that one child doesn’t want to play sports? HA! I am so glad that they have different interests – it is way more fun for me!

A 21 year old college attending, second string football player is something to be proud of, I guess. A 21 year old college attending, second string football player who can do their own laundry, says, “Yes, ma’am” to a girlfriends mother, and can cook himself a grilled cheese sandwich is worth his weight in gold. You don’t get that while doing everything for them.

Let your kids try, and let your kids “fail.” Yes, a four year old will spill the milk while trying to pour themselves a glassful, but if you want your child to pour their own milk at eight years old, you need to get them started. The only way to learn to pour liquids is to experiment and learn to judge how full a carton or gallon is, how far to tilt, when to pull up as the glass fills up, how far to set the glass back on the table or counter so that you don’t knock it off while pouring, and it will take practice to learn to coordinate the eye and hand to successfully pull this task off. Meanwhile, when the milk gets spilled (and it will), new and different lessons are learned. They learn that they are expected to clean up their own messes. They learn what the house rules are: wipe up with paper towel, rag, or dish cloth? Is dry wipe enough, or does this require water, or do we need to use a cleanser? Even more importantly, as all of you parents know, the top visible surface is not the only thing that needs wiped….liquids run down the side, and splash onto the floor or cupboard beneath.

“Failing,” cleaning up the mess, getting over the disappointment, and moving on with confidence is so much more important than trying to protect your child from all of life’s bumps and bruises. You can’t be there all of the time. You don’t get to go to school with them. They need to be able to handle themselves on their own.

Love your kids, but don’t obsess over their “greatness,” especially if it is you, the parent who is really behind the scenes creating the illusion of “greatness.”

I have a feeling that ten or fifteen years down the road, there are going to be a lot of not quite grown up kids out there looking at parents, saying, “Well, yeah, I still live in your basement and let you pay for everything. You never let me do anything on my own. You found my friends for me, did my homework, fed me, cleaned up after me, did my laundry, and intervened in every situation that ever came up. You taught me that I was incompetent and couldn’t handle anything, and now you want me to handle everything??? Bwahahaha!”

Your kids can’t learn to handle what they are not allowed to handle. One of my favorite sayings, ever: “But what if I fail? Oh honey, but what if you fly?”


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