Originally created 08/31/02

Merritt: Children need the 'gift of failure' to succeed at life

IT WILL EITHER be a nasty emotional scene for both of you, or it will just be a disappointment that you'll both get over quickly. Which one depends almost entirely on whether you are willing to give your child the gift of failure.

Everybody fails at one time or another. Almost any parent - even in these neurotic times - would agree that failure is an inevitable and even character-building occurrence.

It's different, though, if it's your kid who has the chance to build character through failure. Some parents go to virtually any length to see to it that Johnny doesn't experience the consequences of his own actions.

The best idea is to see to it that your child experiences failure early, when it matters less and while you're still able to be there to comfort and guide him. Sooner or later, almost certainly around age 18, your child will experience a major disappointment or failure over which you have no control. For many, this disappointment is very likely to be a rejection letter from a college admissions office.

IF YOUR CHILD applies to more than a handful of schools, one will reject him; in the current admissions climate, it's almost certain. So the only question remaining is this: Will your child, though disappointed, come through the experience with maturity and perspective, or will he fall apart?

The answer, I believe, hinges on your family's teaching about failure and loss. (Despite what a large group of parents believes, you can't appeal the college admissions rejection, but that's a different topic.)

How, then, can you prepare for the inevitable disappointment? First, avoid teaching the children through your actions that you will get them out of any jam, no matter how big or small it is, or how richly they deserve to be in the jam in the first place.

Teachers say the task of grading papers and returning them (never a favorite activity) now comes with an additional component: the inevitable phone calls from parents, demanding that grades be changed. Even if the change would make no difference whatever in the student's final average, they still want them changed; the only possible reason is that the parent does not want the student to feel disappointed or uncomfortable, even for a moment.

All over the country, schools are considering dropping competitions of various kinds, because parents are asserting that the process of determining winners is unfair.

A COLLEAGUE in a northern state told me about a parent bringing a lawsuit because his daughter finished third in the class, and was thus unable to make a speech at graduation. The logic? The system for determining grades is not fair, because my child did not win.

This kind of parenting leads kids to become emotionally fragile, helpless adults who do not want to take responsibility for their actions, and do not know how to handle life's inevitable disappointments.

An admissions officer at one of the nation's most famous and elite private colleges recently told me the story of the college senior who failed a required class and was told that he would not graduate.

At first the 22-year-old student was confused, rather than angry: He carefully explained to the dean, "You don't understand. My parents want me to graduate." The dean, left speechless, now reports that the student genuinely believed that mom and dad's wishes would lead to changing the grade.

What we see in these stories are real examples of the kind of parental malpractice that has long been prevalent in more privileged families, and is now seeping down into the parenting philosophy of the rest of us.

FOR MYSELF, I'm memorizing the following principles, and urge you to consider them as well. When my son earns a poor grade or otherwise gets in trouble at school, he is not the victim of a vast conspiracy. Teachers have better things to do than meet in some secret enclave to figure out how to railroad my kid.

And if he's the victim of a questionable call by an athletic referee, I will teach him that the ball sometimes bounces funny, and that's just life.

I WILL GIVE him the gift of knowing that people make mistakes and that life is not always fair or pleasant. And, most importantly, I will give him the gift of learning from his own mistakes - I will give him the gift of failure.

(Editor's note: The writer is the director of college counseling at Westminster Schools of Augusta.),

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