There's been much media discussion lately on letting our kids fail. There was the Atlantic article "Why Parents Need to Let our Children Fail" in January, the Babble follow-up "Why Parents Can't Let Their Children Fail" in February, and a Huffington Post essay called "Why Parents Should Let Their Kids Fail" just this month. The focus of these articles is that our kids can't learn to bounce back unless they screw up in the first place. Good point. But there's something missing from all these articles: the necessity of allowing our kids to see us fail. It is one thing to give our kids permission to mess up and quite another to show them how we blow it and then move on.
I decided recently to make a point of sharing one of my own professional setbacks (okay, fine, failures) with my 8-year-old daughter Risa. It happened when I found out that I didn't receive a competitive film grant. I'd worked my butt off on that application, sent it in, and then had to wait six long months for a response. The email from the grant foundation showed up in my inbox weeks ago, and I held my breath and crossed my fingers as I opened it. "Dear Applicant: We regret to inform you..." NO! NO! I made myself read on: "Due to the large number of applicants who applied this year..." Argh, I didn't need to read the rest. I've had my share of rejections over the years -- as has every creative -- but they sting every single time. I wanted to cry, throw a hissy fit, and then put the rejection behind me and move on.
Instead, I made myself share it that night with Risa, and told her how frustrated and disappointed I was given how much time I'd put into it. "Wow, what are you going to do?" she asked. I told her that my plan was to go back and figure out why I was not chosen so that I would be better prepared for the next application process. Wasn't I frustrated though, she wanted to know. Extremely, I told her, which is why I wouldn't call the foundation until I moved through my anger and hurt. I told her that I was feeling too fragile and didn't think I'd be open to feedback right then. "How long will it take until you're ready?" Risa asked. I told her I wasn't sure so I'd just have to pay attention to my feelings, and I'd keep her posted.
Approximately one week later, I was still bummed but ready, and I called the foundation to ask what I could have done differently. (I was lucky because most of these foundations are so inundated with applications that they don't take the time to give feedback.) On our phone call, I asked the program director what was missing for her in my proposal, and she told me that she liked the topic and characters but didn't understand where the big conflict was. I had thought it was obvious; it wasn't. I had failed to spell out what was at stake in my proposal, which was my job. Drats. I wanted to kick myself but also knew that this was, thankfully, a mistake that was fixable next time.
That evening, I told my daughter about the exchange, what I'd learned, and that I planned to use this woman's advice in the future. Risa wanted to know if I was still upset, and I told her yes, but less so than the week before, and I knew from experience I'd be even less upset in another week. I reminded her how she felt when she didn't get a solo in her school's holiday concert, and while that too stung, the hurt eased every day until she stopped thinking about it. "I don't think about that at all anymore," she piped in enthusiastically. I added that I was proud that I can still learn from my mistakes. She asked if she could go play X-Box Kinnect Sports. (Sigh.) Well, I know that I at least planted the seeds for this ongoing life lesson.
It is hard and even painful to share our rejections with our children. We want them to see us in the shiniest possible light, and learn from our successes and victories. Showing off our achievements is a piece of cake. If we really want our kids to learn how to recover from failures (and see us as humans), we have to be willing to reveal our own "F," bruised egos and healing process. That is how you teach a kid that it is okay to fail.