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The Problem With Failure

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The current parenting status quo hates when every kid gets a blue ribbon. This hive mind rolls its eyes when a child's self-esteem is considered. Lately, the same hive mind values children's little failures over their big successes (unless those successes would have been really, really big). On raising the next generation's hive mind, what today's wants kids to know most is that life is awful, resources are scarce and people's successes come always at the expense of other people's failures.

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Sound about right, everyone in the hive mind? To grow into a strong, resilient adult, one must have experienced misery as a child. Truly enlightened grown-ups, be they moms, dads, teachers or coaches, are here to make sure that misery happens.

We get two major national overhauls of education, both taking the pleasure out of school (pleasure being art, music, recess and free-time). How else will we be able to compete with China and Finland, two fine countries that we in the U.S. feel entitled to dominate. Young children, new to school, new to reading and sitting still and adding fractions and staying focused are offered reminders, often publicly, at how they size up against their peers through public and highly visible rankings hanging at the front of the classroom. What motivates a kid more than the idea of taking down peers, working in isolation so as not to give peers any advantage of her own knowledge, and setting out on that hero's journey where she'll rise to the top to be ranked No. 1 in Mrs. Johnson's class? The kid at the bottom knows it's best to give up, although that's not very resilient. (There's only so much time and, in this system, someone, many someones, have to fail.)

What's driving this kind of low-simmer "Hunger Games" in today's childhood and life? Why are we so sure that pitting kids against each other, copying school systems that serve the children of cultures and societies so different from ours, withholding shiny mementos from a season of losses is how to get the best out of the upcoming generation?

Their childhoods were miserable, and they've grown up to be miserable.

Alfie Kohn asks in a recent New York Times essay how we came to conclude that children who are spared miserable experiences in childhood aren't adequately prepared for the "real world." Kohn, author of The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting, and Punished by Rewards, is hardly defending the trophy approach. He just wants to know what evidence there is that failure and scarcity is the only and best way for children to learn resilience. He writes that the notion kids get off too easy or shouldn't feel too good about themselves is more ideology than social science.

He argues that the core of these sentiments is a kind of conditionality. "Children ought never to receive something desirable—a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation—unless they’ve done enough to merit it. They shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments. In this view, we have a moral obligation to reward the deserving and, equally important, make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded. Hence the anger over participation trophies. The losers mustn’t receive something that even looks like a reward."

Whereas we don't have the science, just the intuition, that failure breeds resilience, Kohn points out that we do know from psychological studies that conditionality is one of the most destructive ways to raise a child.

Doesn't sound so easy.

A few years ago, Lori Gottlieb wrote a really provocative piece for The Atlantic, called "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy." Basically, she argued that the generation of kids who got participation trophies and whose parents moved heaven and earth in order to keep them happy found themselves at a loss in early adulthood. The piece was at the early end of more articles and books touting the benefits of failure on eventual success. One of the most popular, Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed," brought the notion of grit and perseverance to all things educational and parenting.

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But does it really have to be either/or? There are plenty of kids who meet with failure, time and again, and don't succeed. Their childhoods were miserable, and they've grown up to be miserable. If failure, losing and low rankings are the kinds of things kids need to make it in the real world, what's the matter with these guys?

Maybe the question isn't whether kids are getting off too easily, but whether adults see life for kids as a series of wins and losses, with little regard for what falls in between.

But that probably won't sit well with hive mind.

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