NOTE: The author of this article, Dawn Billings, was our featured speaker at Parent University in March, 2010.
Initially, it may seem counter-intuitive, but children need to fail occasionally. Not just for failure’s sake, but for the lessons failure teaches each of us. After all, how much do you really learn from doing something right the first time? I have learned my best and most important lessons from the times when I have failed miserably. It made me want to understand what happened and how to do it better. It also made me a more hardy individual. When you fail, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Why did that happen?” You also get to find out what you are made of, because getting back up and trying again is a learned skill.
We must provide opportunities for children to fail, even change our thinking about failure and begin to get a little excited about it. Imagine what your children would think if as they walked through the door after school each day you asked them with great enthusiasm, “What great thing did you fail at today?” Our emphasis must shift from having our children achieve perfection to having them learn the art of pursuing greatness.
There are two illustrations that can help us understand the difference between perfection and greatness. Imagine a perfect, pristine china figurine. That is how most of us see our children—perfect. If that perfect porcelain gets bumped and loses a finger or gets its face chipped, it loses part of its perceived value. Falling, chipping or breaking is perceived as greatly damaging, and diminishing in value. This is the perception of perfection. Mistakes, failures, falling short—all are indications of our decreasing value.
Now consider a very different paradigm of greatness. The artist Michelangelo, when asked how it was possible that he could create such great beauty out of an enormous piece of stone, would reply that he simply chipped away everything that didn’t belong. Every chip, every break brought him closer to the greatness within. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see our children and teach them to see themselves as wonderful blocks of marble, and that it was their only job to sculpt themselves into greatness, chip after chip.
How wonderful it would be to create an environment where children are encouraged to be artists of their talents, where they are encouraged to take risks, stretch themselves, fall short, get up and try again. How wonderful it would be for us as parents to allow ourselves to celebrate our children’s failures for the wonderful opportunities they are and help them celebrate and value them. This shift in paradigm would greatly aid our children in developing their capacity to appreciate their own worth and importance, to be accountable for themselves, and to act responsibly toward others.
Maybe we should consider grading students for their efforts toward carving out the greatness within them, not just for perfect parroting of information back to their instructors. Now that’s a goal I can get excited about.
Excerpt from Dawn L. Billings, Entitled to Fail, Endowed to Succeed: America’s Journey Back to Greatness, DCB Publishing, 2003.