The Case For Celebrating Your Kid's Failure

by Joelle Wisler
Imgorthand / iStock

A couple of months into this school year, my son brought home his first big math test. We were in the car when he told me that he failed the thing, like, completely and totally bombed it. Red marker everywhere, teacher concerned, failed. He’d always been good with numbers before, and because I’m me and a little bit of an alarmist, I started to question everything.

I thought, he must have been screwing around when the teacher was trying to teach, right? Or his iPad melted his brain, just like I thought it would. He didn’t try. He doesn’t care about school anymore. This is the beginning of it all. He’s going to become a juvenile delinquent. He’s going to live in my basement forever. Shit.

After I pulled myself out of that 30 seconds of catastrophic thinking, and before I took everything important away from him, I did something that I don’t normally do. I stopped myself from talking. This was his first huge failure in school, and I wanted to treat it the right way, but I wasn’t sure how to do that.

I needed to buy myself some time, so I said, “I guess we’ll have to show your dad, and we’ll come up with a plan.” That’s right, I chickened out.

But I’m glad I chickened out, because after I talked with his dad, we decided, what if we don’t make his failure into this huge negative thing where we take away his electronics and have him practice his fractions times infinity? What if, instead, we have a big frickin’ celebration for the shittiest job ever? What would happen? Would he decide that failing is fun? Would every other parent come out from the woodwork and start judging us for being too easy on him? Would the earth stop turning on its axis?

Despite our reservations, we decided to try it anyway. So, that night, we fixed his favorite dinner, we got a cake, we hung up that test on the refrigerator, and we congratulated him on doing a horrible job. We sang to him, off-key, “Happy Failure To You.” We high-fived him and said, “Wow, you really went for it! That test is the worst thing ever, and we’re so glad you failed so hard.” He looked completely confused, and possibly started to question our sanity.

But the thing is, we had to remind ourselves (and him) in the midst of those uncomfortable feelings, that we want him to fail right now. If he fails right now, spectacularly and often, when he is an adult, he will know that failure isn’t the end of the world. The earth will not, indeed, stop turning on its axis. He will learn that he is a human being and that, if he doesn’t try, he will crap the bed. That he will fail, and his parents aren’t going to fix it for him. That he will fail all of the time throughout his life, and that’s the only way he will learn anything. That no one is perfect, and trying to be perfect is a really shitty goal.

That maybe his parents are total smartasses who will hang his F’s on the fridge.

And most importantly, that he can fail and still be loved.

This kid, our über-smart, perfectionist child needs to know that he can fail. That it isn’t the end of the world. That he can pick himself up and try again. That his parents aren’t going to admonish him (unless it becomes a real habit, but we have no fear of that), but instead will support him and love him through it.

Most of the time, we don’t know what we’re doing as parents, but this one worked, I swear. I’m not sure if the whole failing ceremony was just so weird that he didn’t want to ever do that again, or that he actually did find some value in what we were trying to say. He didn’t bring home another failed test. I’m pretty sure that if I would have punished him, which was my first instinct, it wouldn’t have made as much of an impact because he would have been ashamed, embarrassed, and angry.

Who knows? I fail every day. So does his dad. So do you. We all do, and I’m slowly learning that it’s okay. If I can give my kids the gift of failure going out into the world, well, at least they won’t have to spend as much time in therapy on that subject. We’re providing him with plenty of other material to talk about, I’m sure.