I want to tell you a little story about failure. When I graduated from high school, I had been accepted to my dream college. It was my first choice school – a top tier liberal-arts school with distinguished alumni and a long history of educating women who go on to do great things in the world. And off I went, thinking about what it meant to be there and what I was going to accomplish…
I finished my freshman year with a 3.0 GPA – not a failing grade by any means, but not a good enough GPA to keep my scholarship. And so when the bill for fall tuition came, there was not enough money to pay it. I was blindsided by this. I had to leave my dream school. I transferred to the only school that had room for me at that late date – a state school that often finds itself on the list of “best party schools in the South”.
In the passing of time, I completed my bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, and this failure did not define my life. But this is a memory of something I had longed for but did not complete. It is also a way in which I have learned about failure and how to respond to it. So I want to offer you some thoughts on failure.
- Failure is an opportunity to learn to bounce back. It is an opportunity to learn the fine art of picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and trying again (or trying something else). It is a opportunity to re-evaluate a goal or set a new one, and to exercise perseverance. Coping with adversity is a life skill. We cannot protect our children from all failure – and we shouldn’t, because if we do, we can’t teach them how to handle it.
- Failure is an opportunity to respond to your child with compassion. Sometimes failure feels like the end of the world, even if you know it isn’t; sometimes our young people don’t yet have the emotional skill to understand that. So helping your child find self-compassion may start with your own compassion for them. There are times when we all just need to hear “I’ve felt that way before too. I love you no matter what.”
- Failure is an opportunity to take the long view. At the time I transferred schools, I was terribly embarrassed. I did not keep in touch with a single person from my freshman year because I felt the perceived judgment of my transfer so deeply. But it’s been more than twenty years now and no one ever asks me where I went to undergrad. In the long view, it no longer really matters whose name is on the diploma although it seemed so crucial at the time. Your child may not believe you when you say that time will smooth the sharp edges of failure, but tell them anyway. They need to hear it.
- Failure is an opportunity for restoration. Sometimes failure isn’t what happens when we have tried our hardest and come up short; sometimes failure is what happens when we decide not to try at all, or when we decide to actively do the wrong thing. Keep heart when you have to do the work of helping a child come back from such a failure, or watching and waiting for restoration when you cannot yet see it. I believe that God’s heart is near to that parent who is struggling on this walk with a beloved child. We have a big God who can take our broken pieces and restore them to wholeness.
- Failure is an opportunity for God’s love to become evident in our lives. Friends, this is the long arc of the human story: sin and redemption. We fail and God loves us. We sin and God saves us. We won’t always know what God is going to do with our problems, but we can always know that God loves us right now.
So my friends, when you fail or your children fail, here are some things you can say:
- “This didn’t work out the way you had hoped. Let’s sit down together and make a plan to try again. We can solve this together.”
- “I know how much it hurts to not reach your goal. But don’t quit; look at that goal again because I know you’re capable.”
- “I love you, and God loves you. Your value isn’t in your grades or your swim time. You are valuable because you are a gift to me.”
- “I believe you’re capable of finishing what you’ve started. We can work together to make a plan.”
- “If it didn’t work the way you tried it the first time, try another way.”
- “That does sound like hard work, but you can do it.”
- “We all fall short sometimes. Don’t give up.”
- “Let’s ask God to give you strength and perseverance as you go forward with this.”
- “Everyone starts as a beginner when they do something new. You’ll learn by practicing. I bet in a few weeks and months you will be amazed at how much progress you’ve made!”
There is no magic wand that makes failure just disappear. But perseverance and grace will make the way. God has given us his Son to restore us to relationship with Him, and his Holy Spirit to empower us for our journey. He’s also given us friends and wise people who can help us when we need it. Reach out to us if you desire more resources for helping your child succeed.