The benefits of small failures

Recently, my daughter was unwell during one of her phonics lesson. She was drowsy from medicine, and she couldn’t understand what was taught in her phonics class. She got really upset and when we fetched her, she was drowning in tears so much that her teacher felt compelled to give her a hug. That was a very novel experience for both my wife and I, as our girl was usually a very cheerful and happy-go-lucky character. We reacted quite differently to it.

My wife felt that we should prepare my daughter so that she won’t be caught in this dismaying situation again. The worst fear is that the little gal will be so traumatized or humiliated by the experience of not being “smart enough” that she resists going to the classes.

My concern is more about how to educate her on the inevitability and the necessity of setbacks. Not being able to catch up in a phonics class might seem really trivial, but to my girl, it could jolly well be her first dose of the bitter medicine of helplessness. How she deals with this can shape her expectations about school, about learning and ultimately about life.

I bet you would agree with me that life has its ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks. Those who are capable and fortunate experience fewer setbacks than others, but by and large everybody has to deal with them. Even if one is very talented and is blessed with the most supportive family, there will still be things like rejection from boy/girl one is infatuated with, an accident or a serious illness. These fortuitous events of life are very good at revealing just how vulnerable one can be.

If we cannot prevent setbacks from happening in life, our instinct is generally to delay them and to avoid them as much as possible. That is why, I believe, that people drop out of the subjects they have flunked a few times. Or tells oneself that ‘I am simply not the material for this or that. No point carrying on’. Or breaks up with a boy or a girl after one quarrel too many. Or go for a divorce when happiness seemed to be out of reach after a few years of marriage. Or quit praying when disappointment from unanswered prayers proved too much to bear.

As parents, our instinct is to protect our children from all the setbacks and heartaches of life as much as we can. I have a feeling that it is especially so for the parents of this generation, judging from the number of parenting workshops and parenting interest groups I can around me. But I have a theory, that if our children do not get early exposure and the appropriate grounding on failure and disappointment, particularly in the area of learning, it does them more bad than good.

A PhD I know told me that when he was young, he was no where near being outstanding in his class. Doing badly in class was a norm. There was no intensive tuition classes or one-to-one coaching for him, partly because his family background did not allow for that, and also simply because it was just the norm for children to stumble along in their learning journey. It was through repeated failure and struggle, that my friend acquired the skills of self-study and resilience. These skills continue to serve him well till this day.

Speaking from personal experience, I was quite a brilliant student in primary school. I won almost all the academic competition at my level and represented the school in many competitions. All the time while I cruised through my years in primary school, my peers were struggling. They did not shine like I did. But I believe, in their very ordinary schooling days of trying and succeeding, and trying and failing, and trying again, they learnt many things about themselves – what they are good at, what they like and what they simply are not talented in. Many of them are much more successful than I now. I could not have imagined that if I judged from how much success or failure each of us had when we were little. More importantly, their struggle in school life instilled something in them and prepared them for life.

There was a famous Chinese saying, “小时了了,大未必佳”, meaning that a brilliant child may not grow up to be a successful adult. What I am seeing is, in the spirit of meritocracy, efficiency and streamlining, we are making it a taboo to experience failure and setbacks early in life. The price we have to pay may be a generation which are too picture perfect, sheltered and fragile to stand any hard knocks in life. Some called it the Strawberry Generation.

P.S. This morning my daughter pleaded with me to be excused from her kindergarten, because she could not do one of the dance that the children were practicing for the school concert. I hugged her and told her, ‘It’s okay to not know something. That is why you go to school. It’s okay to be slower than others, or to do wrong things. Just apologize, pay attention and try again. That is how you can learn to be better. One day you will become better at it. Daddy Mummy loves you and don’t worry, okay?”

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