Life Lesson: Fear of Failure Leads to Success

It was December 1998, and only four months prior, my husband and I moved our family halfway across the country from Maryland to Wisconsin. We settled into a lovely community outside Milwaukee that boasted a great school district with beautiful parks and open spaces. Our oldest, Patrick, was in the second grade. It was an exciting time for all of us, made even more so when he was selected to play the lead role of Santa in the class Winter Program. His role required much more than a belly like a bowl full of jello and exclaiming, “Ho, ho, ho.” The Santa role demanded memorization of numerous lines critical to queuing up Santa’s workshop helpers. As his mother, I was certain Patrick was perfect for the job. After all, he was smart, capable, and confident. Who better for the lead than him?

     The morning of the play, I called for Patrick to hurry down as the bus was soon coming. When he didn’t respond, I assumed he was dawdling and distracted, perhaps rehearsing his lines before his mirror? I ran up the stairs to help him get on his way only to discover he was not in his room. A quick search of the upstairs while calling for him was met with a silence that quickly made me uneasy. “Patrick?” I called once more. Then I heard it: the faint sound of someone crying. I followed the muffled sounds to his closet where I found Patrick curled up in the corner.

“What if I forget my lines, Mommy?” he asked. Forget his lines? It never occurred to me Patrick might doubt himself. I was caught off guard and unprepared for the fear reflected in his big blue eyes. As I looked down at him, hiding himself behind his red winter coat, I could hear the sound of the bus driving away. Abandoning my expectation of a timely arrival at school, I lifted Patrick  from the closet and led him downstairs to our kitchen table. Fighting back my own tears now, I did what every resourceful mom does in a time of crisis: I called for help. I called his teacher.  

After assuring me Patrick does know his lines, she advised, “It is important you teach Patrick how to fail.” Fail? What happened to “He knows all his lines and will be a raging success”? And what about me? What kind of parent teaches failure? Aren’t I a successful parent when my child succeeds? As much as her words sent me into a tailspin, it was only temporary. Her advice had an unexpected effect on me: It assuaged my fears and led me to a place I didn’t know I could go with my kids. I entered a room much larger than the one I was living in. It was roomy and light and had the sweet aroma of freedom.   

As parents, we tend to feel an incredible sense of responsibility for our children’s success. By letting them fail and working with them through those failures, we help them learn resilience and perseverance as well as humility. They also learn empathy, which may be failure’s greatest reward. I’m so thankful for Patrick’s second grade teacher. Through her words, I learned to breathe in a way that would enable me to run the race set before me of raising five children — children who, as adults, don’t live in closets confined by a fear of failure. Funny enough, I can’t remember if Patrick forgot any of his lines. I just know he had a belly like a bowl full of jello and rocked the “Ho, ho, ho.”

Written by Cathy Markey, the parent of five children aged 14 to 24, is confident she now can handle most of life’s challenges, having survived an accumulated 30 years of raising teenagers (thus far) — and 17 Wisconsin winters. A firm believer in the value of learning from one another, she enjoys sharing tidbits of lessons learned along the way.

P.S. If you google “Learn to Fail,” you’ll find plenty of articles to support this valuable life lesson. Dr. Amanda Mintzer, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, even lays out a multistep process for parents to help their children fail:

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