What Failure Can Teach Our Children
As parents and teachers, we want our students — with or without ADHD — to succeed. So much so, that we often intervene (doing their homework, finishing their chores, and more) before letting them learn the following valuable lessons that failure can teach.
Before the summer started and I was inundated with work teaching weeklong summer camps, my girls and I decided to put together small LEGO kits. The same kits would be available at my camps for students who want to tap into their creativity and build. My previously mentioned love for LEGO building bricks, the Pick-a-Brick Wall at our local LEGO store, and my love for cultivating creativity opened the door to a new project for my two girls and me, one that I would be able to use with other kids in a more formal educational setting.
The LEGO kits I pass out at my summer-camp sessions do not come with instructions. The idea is to let students tap into their creativity through trial and error as they create a unique object. To make sure that something could in fact be made out of the kit’s pieces, I first made a number of different objects, everything from cars to spaceships to cows. Once I found the prototype I liked, I recruited my girls to help recreate the design in bulk before breaking them apart to be distributed into bags for camp.
I also thought a reverse sort of exercise might be beneficial. After building one particular model several times, I decided to challenge my 6-year-old to see if she could recall how to piece the model together without my instructions. To create an incentive, I told her there would be a great reward for completing the kit. She spent about 20 minutes laboring on the task before getting frustrated and coming to me for help. I took over and finished the construction without thought.
“Can I get my special prize now, Daddy?” Natty asked as I pressed the last piece into place. I had to pause for a moment. The fact was, I had still planned on rewarding her. But why? She didn’t finish the task. I did. What would I be teaching her if I gave her a reward when she hadn’t really earned it?
“I’m sorry, Nat! But you don’t actually get a reward unless you do the whole thing from beginning to end by yourself,” I told her, filled with no small degree of guilt as the corners of her mouth turned down and her eyes began filling with tears of disappointment. I was very close to giving in until I caught my wife looking at me with a raised eyebrow and her hand on her hip. (Yes, I am a self-confessed softie when it comes to my kids.)
After Nat overcame her loss, I encouraged her to try again. I made sure to tell her that she needed to complete the project by herself in order to get the prize. This time, she spent about 35 minutes working on putting the pieces together. I could see that she was getting frustrated, but because she knew that the reward would come through her work alone, I saw greater determination in her effort to see the project through than before.
As parents, we are used to doing everything for our kids. After all, they start out so helpless that there is no other way that they can survive except to be completely dependent on us. As they grow, though, we need to be vigilant that we are not doing more harm than good when we step in to offer our assistance before the child has had ample time to try and resolve a challenge on their own. Sure, we hate to see them fail, but failure is a great teacher! (Just to be clear, I am not talking about issues that require immediate adult intervention but things like household chores, homework, yard work, and personal projects.)
If we are forever stepping in before a child reaches the absolute end of their abilities, how will they ever maximize their problem-solving skills? When will they learn to manage their frustrations? How can they learn to take ownership and responsibility for their own lives and happiness?
It took Natty three more attempts over several days to put the pieces together the way I wanted her to, but she did it! Did I stay out of the process completely? Well, no. I pitched in a couple of times, but the bulk of the work she did herself. I believe that her excitement and feelings of self-worth at completing the task were much greater than they would have been had I given her the prize after that first halfhearted attempt.
When you have a child or a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other learning disabilities, it is especially easy to fall into the role of a sympathetic doer instead of a sympathetic enforcer. After all, isn’t the child already at a disadvantage? Why let them struggle more than they already are? But remember that developing strength of character, perseverance, and the ability to push on in times of trouble are all skills that are learned best through failure.
If your child has more than her fair share of failure in her life, the best thing to do is to relentlessly continue to encourage her to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Why? Because believe it or not, when graduation rolls around, kids who were taught to persevere are going to come out ahead of many, many other children that had an easier time in school.
Updated on February 7, 2019