Failure is Awesome!

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill

I’ve had the great joy of watching my (just turned one) granddaughter go through many developmental stages in the last six months. Her parents encouraged her to roll over, then a few months later to rock on all-fours, and then crawl. Now we’re at the standing up stage, and we’re just a few weeks away from that magical first step.

One thing that won’t hear when she takes that first fall is her parents saying, “This kid will never grasp the whole walking thing. Let’s move on to another skill.” That, of course, would be unthinkable.

Eleni Standing (not yet walking) At Window

But, somewhere along the developmental highway some parents have forgotten that letting their son “fall” is a vital part of raising a healthy boy. While this may be obvious when they’re young, it’s our opinion that failure, is a vital part of letting a son (or daughter) grow up…even on important tasks.  

While the parent is trying to keep their son from getting hurt, too often they act as a rescuer and steal the learning opportunity. The parent feels better about it because the son is spared from temporary emotional pain, but in reality the parent hasn’t allowed the child to be present in dealing with his own challenges.

“College students with helicopter parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life and attributed this diminishment in well-being to a violation of the students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”  – (The Journal of Child and Family Studies) A parent’s strong desire to protect their son is a “violation” of his basic developmental needs.

My friend, Dr. Karl Galik says, “Being present in the pain means being there…without resorting to quick fix responses. These shallower responses usually ease the discomfort of the parent, but not the person in need.” So, the parents “rescuing” the son is about the parent and just makes the parent feel better, and doesn’t actually help the son.

Yes, it’s more difficult to just be with your son when the pressure is on, but by allowing him to experience the emotional pain on his own, you’re actually teaching him that he can deal with challenges without you. This strengthens his emotional and mental capacity. It’s no different than letting him fall when he was a baby, so he could eventually learn to stand on his own.

When Jeff was in his junior year at Augustana College, he was facing an intense mental and emotional struggle because things on the basketball team were not going the way he felt they should. The team was having considerable success and winning a lot of games. Being 6’6” and an excellent shooting guard positioned Jeff to stand out in many Division III college programs, but Augustana’s style of ball was not in Jeff’s sweet spot. As a result, he saw limited playing time in many games.

I recall some long conversations with Jeff early in his senior year about whether or not he should quit the team and focus on other things. Ultimately, he stayed on the team, swallowed his frustrations around his teammates, and put all he had into the role he was given.

Some might say, “That certainly didn’t turn out very well. Jeff could have gone to 100 other colleges and been a stand-out shooting guard, and probably average 25 points a game.” But that perspective makes it sound like the story ends in failure.

From another perspective, Jeff’s story is far from a failure. Socially, Jeff made life-long friendships with some of the finest young men I’ve ever met. Emotionally and physically, he learned to endure some of the toughest physically and emotionally draining, and exhilarating experiences imaginable. Academically, the vigorous liberal arts experience prepared Jeff to think critically about important life issues. Competitively, he was an integral part of a team that won three CCIW conference championships. He developed leadership qualities and values including discipline, sacrifice for the greater good of the team, grit and determination.

These attributes are far more important than playing basketball. This experience helped shape him into the tender lion he is today. Would I have liked to see him be a starter? Of course! Would I trade the experience for another? Absolutely not! Jeff’s “failure” to be a starter doesn’t mean he wasn’t an important team leader and didn’t gain vital life and leadership lessons from the experience. If he was a failure, then failure is indeed awesome.

This is an edited excerpt from Tender Lions – Building the Vital Relationship Between Father and Son.

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