A parent asked me this question during the last session of a four-week programme on motivational strategies. The discussion was on creating intrinsic drive instead of repeating the arduous weekly routine of cajoling their child to memorise their spelling list.
My response? “Of course it’s okay!” In fact, parents need to celebrate such failures. The more the merrier! It may sound flippant, but it boils down to a simple fact. The reason both parents and children detest the weekly exercise is because we have removed the joy of learning.
Most parents commit three core mistakes:
Mistake #1: Having Unrealistic Expectations
Our well-meaning intention to expand their vocabulary inevitably results in expectations. We make it clear that anything less than a particular score is a let-down. Consequences vary from negative remarks reminding them of our disappointment to harsher punishments for not achieving full marks.
Expectations go beyond results. We assume our kids should know how to behave, go to bed at the exact time we set, and finish the food on their plates because it’s good for them.
It’s unattainable, for the simple reason that our children are not programmable robots. They have minds of their own, emotions they are learning to contain, and personal preferences that may not reflect ours.
And yet in our own minds, we set standards they never agreed to. We don’t realise that imposing such expectations disconnects us from intimacy. We deprive ourselves of a deep connection and involvement in their growth process.
The solution? Engage them in a dialogue. My version of a two-way conversation used to involve telling them what I wanted, conveniently ignoring their protests. On hindsight, my directive monologue was evidence of my decision and no one dared to question me. Today, dancing in dialogues, allowing the other person’s opinions to carry the same weight, is something I relish.
Mistake #2: Creating Unenjoyable Learning Experiences
Naturally, it is the unrealistic expectations that create the perfect setup for a negative studying experience. Are we so results-oriented that we unknowingly sabotage the learning process? Have we traded the joy of learning by placing an over-emphasis on results?
It is no wonder our children dread learning spelling. Who would enjoy a weekly scolding routine?
Setting our children up for success is an intentional experience. It is a skill we can hone. It starts with the courage to reduce our expectations to include what is achievable for them, from their perspective.
The first time I asked my daughter how much she wanted to get for her Chinese spelling, she tentatively said five out of 10. “Why not make it three?” I asked. Her eyes darted to mine to see if I was sincere or trying to trap her.
My intention was to undo the damage I’d caused with my enthusiasm for a perfect score and in doing so, change her relationship with that subject. If any child is going to take joy in acquiring knowledge, the experience has to be enjoyable.
The old modus operandi must be replaced with one that builds the child’s self-esteem. One that restores their confidence in their ability to understand the subject, however long it takes. Because isn’t education a lifelong process? If the child hasn’t understood a particular topic at the point of the test, should they be penalised or encouraged to keep persevering?
Mistake #3: Instilling Negative Relationships with Failure
A system that penalises for wrong answers is why many lose their innate creativity and shy away from making mistakes.
We are trained at a young age to only raise our hands when we are confident of having the right answers, instead of experiencing wrong answers as opportunities to learn. The shame and humiliation that follows wrong answers is so memorable that many stop attempting to avoid the repercussions.
The sad reality is that when we stop making mistakes, we stop growing. Our comfort zone stops expanding and we are happy to repeat the familiar. And worst of all, we model this for our children to do the same.
What if We Celebrate Failures as Opportunities to Grow?
One of our dinnertime topics at home includes cheering each person for their failures that day. When I first started asking my family to share ‘what you failed in today’, my husband said I was being negative.
“That’s exactly what I mean — we equate failures to negativity! Why shouldn’t we celebrate failures as a part of one’s growth and see it as a positive, mind-expanding experience? What if we boo at those who didn’t take the chance to fail because they insisted on being safe? It’s so sad — there was no growth for them that day.” I am unconventional, yet clear and focused.
No one knew how to respond to my questions that day because we had all been playing it safe. Even I realised how uncomfortable I was with admitting to my own failures in a world that has schooled us to always look good.
“What’s your definition of failure?” our nine-year-old asked.
“When you took action and did not achieve your outcome. That’s our working definition of failing. And we’ll celebrate your effort!” I said.
So celebrating failures at home is my way of transforming our relationship with failure into a positive one. One that is necessary on a daily basis. One that we embrace and look forward to, for personal growth and learning opportunities, because some things are caught, not taught. A culture that honours boo-boos as ah-ha moments frees us to grow, stretch, and get creative chasing our goals.
What’s your culture like at home?
(See also: 4 Ways you can Empower Your Daughters)