It’s a beautiful fall afternoon: the sun is shining in an impossibly blue sky, the wind is whipping through the trees, and out on the field, six five-year-olds are chasing after a soccer ball. There’s my son, with the black “3” emblazoned on the back of his white jersey. You can tell which player he is, even without the number. He’s the one who follows the ball the full length of the (admittedly short) field, the one whose kicks always go in the direction of the right goal, the one who cares so hard about winning that he pushes himself through the whole game. His focus makes him stand-out in an age group where the players are as often seen twirling aimlessly at the wrong end of the field, stealing the ball from their own teammates, or climbing on the goal posts.
But there’s a dark side to this hyper focus. Five minutes after my son scores his second goal, the opposing team scores. Then they score again, and again, and my son dissolves into a pool of desperate tears at the side of the field. The other parents are concerned, wondering if he is hurt. “No,” I say, trying to hide my own frustration. “He just can’t handle losing.”
This is a problem my husband and I wrestled with all season–and continue to wrestle with. When my son’s team won, he glowed all the way home. When they lost (which was often), he cried. His coach kindly brushed the crying aside, seeing it as evidence of my son’s intense commitment to the game. But I saw it as a symbol of my failure as a parent.
I don’t want my son to be the kind of kid who cries when he loses. Not because other kids will make fun of him when he’s a little older (although that’s part of it), but because I want him to learn how to fail—how to take his losses gracefully and how to have the courage to try again.
But I don’t know how to teach him this.
I myself struggle with failure, and with losing (ask my husband about the time I threw a deck of cards at him. In my defense, I was pregnant, but still). I’ve learned not to cry (at least not publicly), but I want more than this for my son.
Recently, there was a fascinating New York Times article that asked, “What if the secret to success is failure?” The article tracks the experience of public educators who, while researching the role of character in education and success, uncovered a wealth of evidence that suggests that the most important values for success are: grit (that ability to persist through disappointment), zest (enthusiasm for learning), self-control, social-intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. I couldn’t help smiling a little when I read this list—it reads like a litany of pioneer virtues.
These are the values I want for my son—but these aren’t the academic skills I know how to teach. Reading and math? We’ve got those covered. But I feel helpless in the face of these virtues, virtues that I know, in the long run, will be of far more value to him than rote academic skills.
At the suggestion of my son’s kindergarten teacher, we’ve started repeating a mantra, “It’s okay to make mistakes.” Sometimes it works. Other times, though, an errant line in a drawing is enough to send my son into despair. Intellectually, he’s starting to get the concept. But I’m not sure he believes it.
So this is my appeal to you: how do you teach your child that it’s okay to fail? That success is often won not by talent, but by perseverance? How do you teach grit?