Nine-year-old Betsy was set up to fail. Primped and pampered her whole life, she had never done a chore or fixed her own hair. When circumstances changed and Betsy went to live with cousins on a Vermont farm, her new family expected her to pitch in and help. Naturally, Betsy made mistakes as she tried new skills and adjusted to her new life.
But her story doesn't end in failure. If you've read Understood Betsy from Core B, you know that Betsy blooms as she learns new skills and discovers she's capable of far more than she ever thought. The country air and some reasonable hard work only make her happier, stronger and more confident.
As Betsy exemplifies, failure is a perfectly natural part of learning and growth. We all know this intellectually. But we live in a society that places a big stigma on failure.
That's why I appreciated a blog post a colleague recently sent me about modeling failure for our kids. Unlike the author of the post, I have zero interest in motorcycles, so I've never had the chance to fail while learning to ride. But I love the point he makes about parenting: we need to teach our kids how to fail.
Sonlight books show how failure and learning go together
Believe it or not, I consider a book's perspective on failure when I determine what to include in Sonlight's curriculum. I don't choose books where the characters are perfect. I avoid stories where children always make the best decision and only do things at which they know they'll excel.
I choose books where the kids, like Betsy, seem real. They face challenges and try new things. Not surprisingly, they often fail at those new things. (Ever taught a child to ride a bike? Lots of failure involved there before the successful takeoff!) But Sonlight characters keep trying, go on to learn valuable lessons, and ultimately make a difference in their world.
I think of books like Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, The Hundred Dresses, Call it Courage and Jacob Have I Loved. The characters are most certainly not perfect in these books. But they do persevere, develop virtue, gain new skills and become heroes in their own way by the end of the story.
Homeschooling can help kids develop a healthy view of failure
I actually think homeschooling can provide the perfect environment for kids to stretch their wings, try new things, fail, and succeed.
Compare this to a school setting. In many schools, children receive a grade on every bit of work they complete. When every math assignment comes back with red ink and a score that counts toward a final semester grade, how much pressure does that put on kids to succeed every time? I wonder if this pushes kids to either become obsessed with perfection or just stop caring. I certainly don't think it encourages kids to try things at which they might not succeed. It reminds me of an article about the inverse power of praising your children. If they know they won't get a perfect score, why even try?
But homeschooled kids can learn through mastery. They can try new things without the constant pressure of a grade stamped on their paper. They can mess up their math problems and then stick with the concept until they actually learn it. As my son Luke explains so well, failure is OK on the road to mastery.
Homeschooled children have free time to take up computer programming, art, video production, cooking, or a thousand other interests that all require trying, failing, and trying again. And they can do this without the constant pressure of grades on each assignment.
In society at large, failure of any sort can carry a huge stigma. May we instead teach our children that failure is not the end of the story. Just like Betsy, let's help them learn how to fail … and then how to keep on trying.