What an opening. Can a 6 year old really fail? What does failure mean? How much is there to fail at this age? You would think not much. Well, that is not what Little Girl C thought when she was told she did not pass her ski test. Actually, I think she was told she failed. That was what she heard at least. Yes, a ski test. A luxury problem really.
The message came as a shock. And as a luxury problem, most likely I did not give it the right immediate attention. The peaceful parenting course should have thought me better. Maybe if I would have cried with her over her failure when she came back from the test, everything would have been different. I thought I showed empathy but it must have been insufficient.
Little Girl C had spent the first part of the week slightly uneasy about her ski and I could tell. Against the usual, she asked to be picked up shortly after ski classes and spent less time than usual at the kids club extra activities. She even came up with the thought of not participating in the show this year (but totally participated and in the front row). I wondered if it was the French limitation. But on Thursday, she came back shinning with pride, and as we did her journal we struggled to find space for so many gratitudes. The bigger one was ‘I did parallele today’.
So the next day, when she received her result, she was in absolute anger. And she made sure she made that clear to anyone around her. When later that evening we did not agree to a sleepover, it all came to the surface and I was the target of all the aggression and seen as the perpetrator of all unfairness. I admit, my peaceful parenting course only took me so far. Half way through I joined the fight. It was not pretty.
Does the myth of effort help?
I spent a long time thinking about this over the last few days. What could I have done different? But most importantly, how can I help her see things different. To see the failure as something she can affect rather than an unfairness she is being the target of. I have not found many questions and in fact this article may be more about questions than answers. As ‘good’ parents we praise efforts a lot. Only last week I was in Nadim Saad’s workshop about raising confident children and how that was the right message. Effort, celebrating mistakes and intrinsic motivation.
But I have to admit that telling her she needed to try harder next time did no good to help the situation. I could even barely say it as it just felt so hurtful as a response. I did remember the concept of “yet” – you can’t do it yet, but you will in the future, to share a growth mindset with her, but it also did no good. The problem with her is anger means she does not listen. Even when I am lucky enough to say the right things.
I comforted her and promised to find out from the teacher what she needed to do better next year. She was distraught. Her first real failure. (yes, ski)
Nothing else matters
After this, the feeling of a great holiday vanished from her. She was easily frustrated and even more upset that one of her friends passed. As much as I explained that someone else’s misery would not alleviate her own, she did not care. Misery wants company.
She had many happy moments thereafter but each of them had to be carefully managed. Even when we went skiing together I had to make Hubby B promise his comments would be more than 50% positive. He did not promise but he got there in the end. She had fun at the final show. She had a private lesson with the friend she was hating the day before and they made amends on their differences. But when returning to London and looking back on her holiday, she decided the holiday was not good and she did not even want to tell her friends or teacher about it. After 3 days managing her emotions, admittedly we snapped at her nearsightedness. How dare she. How righteous of us.
Self-confidence or lack thereof
This attitude is not new to us. Over the last year, the amount of homework has severely increased and the nightmare of it has equally so. I get home late and the last thing she wants to do with the limited amount of time she has with me is homework. Some days she gets home in good spirits and sits next to Hubby B nicely. But the reading not so much. I know, she is only 6, but it is the system we are in, and she is not even in private school.
This term we agreed to only do extra work on the weekends, on her suggestion after I asked how we could solve the constant fighting problem. In the weekends we have plenty of time to do homework and play, whilst during the week she will do what she can (if she remembers). I struggle again, how can she forget? And then I remember that I probably would too if I was 6. I remember having good study habits (on my own). But I don’t remember being 6!
But moving on. The nightmare with homework is not just getting her to do it. Because in fact she likes it once she starts. The nightmare is when she makes a mistake. Failure turns it around. As unemotional as you try to do it, she hates it, it quickly escalates. Gets everyone frustrated. I threaten a tutor. No good comes out.
Reality is, we get utterly frustrated because we know she currently just above average in her class and clearly frustrated by it. By the higher level books she can’t bring home. By the extra Maths the others can do. She even decided her neat handwriting is not what it should be. We know she is capable of more but her mindset is not helping her. And we get frustrated with her, and ultimately blame ourselves. What joy.
So really, what helps a 6 year old dealing with failure?
I share some of the tactics we tried and some of the strategies we have toyed with or heard. If you want to add, please do. Let’s face it, this will be the first of many. And other tests are unlikely to be as luxurious as ski.
Facts without recrimination
When we spoke to the teacher, I could explain to her exactly what the exam was about. What the “failure” was about. Probably avoiding the word failure overall. As I did I kept it very non accusative avoiding as much as possible the expression “you could not do this” or “you were not able to do that”. I said what the requirements were, what I believe she could already do and how next year she could go on with her ski life. Indeed, we only ski once a year so there are another 51 weeks in the year not to worry about this.
This is meant to be a good one. “What could you do differently”. Not having done this last week at ski I decided to try it last night doing Maths. When I had to run her through the exercises she did not get right, I could see the body language going south on her. She can barely sit as if she needs distance from a wrong exercise. She looks at it upside down twisted between arms and legs, just to try and avoid looking at her mistake straight. So as I calmly explained where the exercises had gone wrong today, I asked her at the end the magic sentence. “What will you do next time you see an exercise like this”. I positioned my correction as a tip or an aid rather than correcting what is wrong. I tried to give her the tools rather than to get stuck on the maths. Time will tell how much this works
Empathy without Judgement
I tried lots of empathy with the ski test. When she was deep in her anger I just told her “I know, it sucks that you failed. And it sucks even more that your friends passed.”. I think she was surprised at the use of the word “sucks” and the effect was good. But I admit it, I could not keep it up. By Sunday I was ready to tell her she would never go skiing again as I was not willing to stand this type of attitude. The only advice that is certain to work here is – don’t copy my threats. First, they are not credible, second, they do nothing to help her build resilience.
We have been sporadic in the usage of the happy self journal. She has recently picked up on it again, during a more difficult week for her, which goes to show it is a ritual she appreciates. I could not get her to do gratitudes on Friday, she really could not see through it. And as I tried to calm down before going to bed and struggled to write my own gratitudes she came and said “but Mummy, aren’t you grateful that we skied together today?”. I said I was and I was proud that she got the concept right. Even when things are darker, there are so many things to be grateful for.
Yesterday morning, as yet again she was moaning about not wanting to tell anyone about her holidays and her failure, I spent a lot of time talking to her about all the cool stuff the week had – the activities, the ski, the friends, eating pasta every day, having ice cream every day, drinking juice at all the meals, having her own room key, anything I could think of. She got the point that the ski test was just a small part of it, but I am guessing we will need to continue working on it.
Here is one that I have tried very little, also recommended by Nadim Saad. In fact he argues that the way you react to your own failures and how we can celebrate mistakes is determinant in how they react. When I mentioned to her that we all make mistakes and fail tests, she bluntly said “Mummy never failed at anything”. I stopped myself from laughing out loud and tried to argued that I did.
But in fact, I never told her about it. Mental note, we have to share more. She feels worse and ashamed to think it is just her failing. (In fact she felt better when one of her other friends also failed, which I explained to her was not going to help her in any way either). Clearly, we need to celebrate our own mistakes more. Which means we also need to learn how to do that. Honestly, when was the first time you were happy that you scr*** something up?
It’s not about you
This is a typical one. This was not about offending me, upsetting me or ruining my holiday. In fact, she wanted none of that. This was merely because she could not cope with this emotion of having failed. If anything, she had a huge fear of disappointing us because she failed. Which still does not mean you saying that you don’t mind that she failed will solve it. Indeed, you don’t want to “not care” right? You do care that she passes but it’s no big deal that she doesn’t. The thing I care the most is that she is happy doing it.
But in the heart of the moment where emotions are running high, for some reason you spot yourself saying. “Now you are just trying to piss me off”. As if they wake up to do that. It is not about the other, it is about them and them alone. And you need to get your ego out, your childhood out and listen attentively.
Failure sucks. We know that. In the day I got home from my non promotion I had a hard time dealing with it. It was one of the most open failures I have had in a long time. I had all the emotions – embarrassment, unfairness, anger. Yes, anger. So how can I blame my 6 year old for feeling the same. Even though I went and hid in my room while I processed it, the fact is I hated it. And I hated that I hated it. I judged myself too. I try and remember that. Because the only way to learn how to fail better is by failing often. And that is just not pleasant.Ian Kim