In my opinion, we all face one or more hurdles to effective parenting, like one mostly hidden but deeply ingrained character trait that, if we fail to overcome it, has the potential to thwart our childrearing efforts. If we do not identify and address this issue (or issues) for ourselves, we do our kids a disservice, setting them up to repeat our less-than-ideal patterns and most persistent life mistakes.
Let me tell you about mine: I am afraid of failing.
If you know me in the real world, this fact may surprise you. From the outside and on paper, I seem to have it all together. I am a successful, well-educated businesswoman, the mother of two beautiful, healthy, intelligent children, and the wife of a wonderful, kind, handsome man with an impressive career. Other women regularly seek me out for parenting and career advice. I come across as happy, kind, honest, and funny, and I frequently receive compliments on my smile and my somewhat raucous laugh.
Regardless, I am still afraid of failing.
I got mostly straight As in high school. After contracting mononucleosis during my sophomore year, I got one B in physical education (P.E.). That one B prevented me from graduating as valedictorian or salutatorian, even though I took all Honors classes and the salutatorian did not. My two top choice colleges waitlisted me, and I always wondered if graduating salutatorian would have led to outright acceptance.
This experience taught me that one mistake, one misstep short of perfection, could negatively impact my life and the choices and opportunities available to me.
For financial reasons, my parents didn’t finish college, and they expected me to do well academically. They weighed every extracurricular activity and every outing against how each affected my grades, often telling me, “Yes, you can do that… as long as your grades don’t slip.” While many high schoolers get jobs as part of the teenage experience, my parents prevented me from working during the school year to make sure I had enough time to study.
As a parent myself, I now understand the intent behind my mom and dad’s actions was benevolent. They wanted to give me opportunities they never had for academic success. Knowing most of my adult life would involve working, they tried to give me the freedom to enjoy my youth and focus on my studies.
My parents didn’t anticipate the unwanted side effect of their high expectations and intense focus on academic achievement: I evolved into a perfectionist who lived in constant fear of failing.
I entered college fully intending to attend law school immediately after graduation, and so I enrolled in government and political economy classes. Unfortunately, I found those classes incredibly difficult, and the exams induced stress beyond what I assume normal people experience. Walking across a busy street on the way to my final exam, I actually thought to myself “if I get run over, then I won’t have to take the test.” That one frightening thought led me to declare an English major over Government.
Reading, writing, literary interpretation, critical thinking, and participating in lively class discussions came easily to me; complex economic theory and the workings of government did not. While I now know it makes sense to figure out and honor what we do well and what we enjoy by pursuing it academically and professionally, at the time, I viewed this change in my educational trajectory as failing, even though I achieved B+ grades in those excruciatingly hard political economy classes.
It never occurred to me that other people might find the things I do well challenging. I didn’t recognize my gifts as gifts, instead, I saw myself as taking the easy way out.
Let’s fast forward to modern day parenthood. I tried my best to avoid the same mistakes my parents made, knowing my kids might inherit my anxious, perfectionist tendencies. As a result, I set the academic achievement bar at a reasonable level; any scores at 80% or above are acceptable. If scores fall below that, we need to work a little harder to learn the material, but learning is always our goal, not grades in and of themselves. In terms of academic perfectionism, I lucked out with my son, as he places too little emphasis on schoolwork, frequently raging against the injustice of homework. The “measuring stick” of 80% works just fine to keep him motivated enough to learn.
Unfortunately, my daughter resembles me in temperament, though not in academic strengths. She is failing first-grade spelling.
The English major in me, the writer in me, froze in disbelief at this news. I immediately pinned her failing on me. What am I doing wrong? I never talk down to my children. Even when they were babies, I talked normally to them. I continue to read aloud to them and ask them to read aloud to me on a daily basis. We are a highly verbal family. How can my daughter fail spelling, of all subjects?
I decided to help her the same way I help my son with his homework and studying for spelling. He takes a practice test from the list of words for the week’s spelling unit that I dictate to him. For the words he gets wrong, I ask him to write each of them ten times. This approach works for him. He rarely misses more than one or two words on spelling tests. I tried the same approach with my daughter, and, to my dismay, she did worse on the next test.
At my wit’s end, I expressed my concerns to her teacher, whose take on my daughter’s struggles with spelling shocked me even further. She believes my daughter stresses out so much over taking the test that her brain forgets how to write the words. Just like that, I time traveled back to 1991 and those terrifying political economy exams.
As a parent, I try so hard to make “good enough” okay for academics, and yet, somehow, my daughter inherited my fear of failing without any pressure from me.
She excels at art and math. They come easily to her, so her fear of failing even mirrors mine in the sense that it applies only to those subjects that she finds difficult: spelling and writing. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pass my strengths in those areas to her genetically, and, because they come so naturally to me, I find them difficult to teach.
I found myself in the unenviable position of having to teach her lessons that I myself do not yet know: how to risk failing without fear.
As a family, we are learning together, using the following guideposts as daily reminders on our collective journey to fail without fear.
Guidepost #1: We have to keep trying, especially when it’s hard for us.
The right words often come to us at the right time, if we are paying attention and willing to listen. I recently finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. The book, based on her blog, chronicles her year-long project aimed at increasing her personal happiness. While brainstorming the specific resolutions that, if she observed daily, would boost her own happiness, she created a list of guideposts, which she goofily refers to as “my Secrets of Adulthood.” Near the bottom of her list, I found this golden nugget:
Yes! Here is someone I respect telling me that I have to fail to prove I am trying. Sign me up!
Guidepost #2: Failing is necessary to mastering a skill, and fear of failing holds us back.
A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by comedian Amy Schumer. Arguably one of the most accomplished women of our time, Schumer details the hard work and determination it took for her to become a successful stand-up comic. She shares the secret to her success by saying:
That one phrase “completely unafraid to fail” made my heart stop. I’m not sure it’s in my nature to reach absolute and complete fearlessness in the face of failing, but, for the sake of my children, I will never stop trying to build a place of unflappable courage inside of myself.
Guidepost #3: Take the pressure off, and make it okay to fail.
I tend to give good advice to friends and family members (or so I’m told), and I once blurted out a piece of advice I now use as one of our family guideposts. My husband and I are similar creatures, and we share a fear of failing, so much so that the fears we each brought into our relationship almost derailed it.
During one of our “what if” conversations (you know, “what if this goes wrong, what if that goes wrong”), he made the statement “it feels like failure isn’t an option.” In that moment, I realized the common expression “failure is not an option” puts too much pressure on us as flawed and fallible human beings. I countered “failure is an option; it’s just not the goal.” We both looked at each other and burst out laughing. It completely took the pressure off, and we continue to talk through our fears together. We encourage the kids to do the same.
Guidepost #4: Pursue your dreams, believing you can achieve them.
While doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, I stumbled across magnets with inspiring sayings. I bought one for each member of the family. My daughter’s says:
The possibility of failing and our fear of failing too often stop us from following our true callings, our heart’s passions.
What if failing wasn’t possible? How much could we achieve if we not only conquered our fear of failing but stopped believing in failure altogether?
Maybe, by playing it safe, I missed out on a career as the greatest lawyer of our time, defending truth, justice, and the American way, or maybe, just maybe, I chose the path I’m supposed to be on. As of today, I can only move forward, knowing my children are watching me, and singing Shakira’s Try Everything as I go: “Nobody learns without getting it wrong… No, I won’t leave. I wanna try everything / I wanna try even though I could fail”.