The “F” Word

Author: Matthew Rush  • 

It’s used all the time.  Is it appropriate?  At what age do you allow it to happen?  Are we willing to accept that it actually has positive, long term benefits?

Failure is essential, it is inevitable, and it is healthy.  However, in the education world it is a dirty word and a scary one, too.  If we disconnect the emotion attached when it surrounds our own children, we know as adults that failure is actually the best way to learn.  But this is not a new phenomenon.

In fact, Aristotle himself said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”  Still, it’s a concept that needs to be celebrated and embraced rather than berated and feared.

Having lived in North Carolina for six years, I was presented the opportunity to learn a lot about the Wright Brothers.  While they are credited for inventing the airplane and flight, the total number of failed attempts, failed models, and incredible numbers could have populated a medium sized-town.  Still, they learned something from each fail.  And in the end, their success was legendary.

While all of us cannot be legendary, we are all similar in at least one way.  All of us are learners.  Moreover, all of us learn by doing: from the basics of talking and walking, to becoming experts in every field that is currently known.  The idea of learning by doing was the mantra of educational reformer John Dewey.  If you don’t know Dewey, he is famous for his writings and philosophy around teaching and learning.  Specifically, he believed through his own practice and research, that a student cannot be passive in learning to do something.  Instead, they must do.  They must tinker and they must experiment.  And with that, there is inherent failure.

Have you ever worked with a physical trainer?  If so, you know that you are taught new exercises and stretches.  Some are brand new, some are awkward, and some end up causing pain.  However, that pain is because you are using new muscles and joints that you were not engaging correctly when you tried it by yourself.  As you learn these new techniques, you mess up.  You might even think you look funny doing them, or that you are being corrected by your instructor.  But in the end, you grow physically stronger, and become more informed about the how and why of the stretch/exercise.

Last week at Allen Academy, 17-year-old Chinese acrobats performed for the entire school.  While they were amazing, especially considering their age, the emcee was very clear about the training this small group had to endure in order to get here.  Each of them had been training at least ten years.  They made it look simple, like any professional in any activity does.  I turned to a fellow educator and asked, “How many times do you think they’ve fallen?”  And there it was again… Failure.  Don’t you think they learned their craft at a high level because of hundreds of falls (fails)?

So now a quiz:

Your child brings home an “F” on a test.  What do you do?

Your child is having trouble with friends at school (failing at interpersonal relationships).  What do you do?

Your child misses all 5 shots she takes in the basketball game.  What do you do?

Your child doesn’t get in to all 8 colleges to which he applied.  What do you do?

I am not suggesting that failure isn’t scary.  I am not suggesting that an “F” on a high school transcript isn’t cause for some concern.  And I am not suggesting that our children’s athletic, artistic, interpersonal, or scholastic failures are not anxiety producing for us as parents.  What I am saying is that we must accept failure as the opportunity to grow and to get better.

You can call it grit, determination, stick-to-it-iveness, or being relentless.  Regardless, as parents, we have to praise effort and not the grade. We must praise effort, not whether the friendship actually pans out.  We must praise effort, not the final scoreboard.

Remember that in the end, failure is not a dirty word at all.  It’s simply the beginning of growing, learning, and mastery.

My best,


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