Failure, Brett Jordan, Unsplash

The Practice of Failure

As I get called back into Little Girl C’s room for a “private chat”, I find myself yet again frustrated at her frustrations. I know, that does not help, right? Even though home-schooling has been going relatively smooth, especially after some hiccups on week 3 and 4, it is never without its small frictions. Mostly, about failure. She hates failing (I spoke about this before!). And don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate it any less. But I am not offended by it, or deem myself stupid. Rather I focus on all that I can do to get over the failure next time round.

Raising a Child to Fail (and Succeed)

Aligned with my fight to overcome failure, you can imagine I spend a lot of time finding new ways to explain to Little Girl C how failing is not a big deal. Not something to be ignored, granted, but also not something to be taken as an unsurmountable obstacle. .

“I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps”

Thomas Edison

It is a quote from her journal and one that we constantly remind her of. In fact, she even brings it up herself in a good day. But those days don’t happen often. And I wonder why.

Growth Mindset

This weekend, in a rare moment of peace (payback from letting Hubby B sleep till 11am the day before), I sat in bed with a coffee watching snow fall and listening to Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. Whilst I never knew what to call it, this is a mentality I have probably always had, but I most certainly embraced with energy a few years ago.

And whilst I feel like jumping straight into the chapter about raising children with a growth mindset, I am pacing myself and trying to stay at it. Nodding at every time a kid asks for more difficult puzzles in excitement. Shaking my head each time someone’s potential on the basis of a single test score. Curious on how it all enfolds in our brains. I badly want to find the right answer, but I recognise. A book is a process.

Extra Work and Piano

On the top 3 of what creates high attrition in the home-schooling life, piano and extra work have to be high up there. Funny enough, after the initial complaint, extra work is usually done without a blink and usually some enthusiasm. I sometimes even have to stop it, especially if it is coding or an arts video (yes, that counts as extra work, because it is not sent from school).

Piano does not get as much good treatment. Getting her to play the piano has been a real ordeal. After a significant breakdown half way through the first term, I realized her teacher was not for her. With a Little Girl that struggles with criticism, I don’t need someone to pamper her but I do need some empathy. So, as a proof of goodwill, I agreed to change her teacher of 2.5 years at the end of the term if she would keep at it with peace. I also said I could not care less about the piano exams. That eased it and she turned around to suddenly being able to play all the pieces she could not play.

So I kept to my promise and changed her teacher in January. A teacher we have never met in person but that she warmed up to very fast. Now we have empathy together with toughness. And I see how she struggles each time the teacher says stop or talks about what she did wrong. Even though she also showers her with compliments on her progress and practice. It’s tough for her and some days she needs a good amount of rough play after it to release the tension.

You may wonder, why don’t you stop the piano?

A way for self-expression
Whilst I try and not be too obsessed about learning methodologies or things they tell you “to make your children successful”, there are a few things that I am a bit fussy with. Piano is one of them. For a number of reasons, but I will only cite a few. First and foremost because I love it and it is my childhood frustration to not have been pushed more. Haha. Got you there. Whilst those are both true, this is reason #1 of why I question myself every day if I should just let her drop. I don’t want to be the parent living my life through my children. Let her play the trumpet. Or no instrument at all!

That’s where my reasoning comes in. She loves music with a passion. She is creative and expressive with her art. Both fine arts and performing arts. Her imagination runs wild when she lets go of the constraints of a given work. Her energy sparks when she is performing one of her many shows. So I have told her learning music is important and we will do it via piano because it will give her the breadth to do any music in the future. She has tried the violin as well, but it was too hard for what she was willing to cope with and I was unfortunately (frustration) not able to help her much with it. So I accepted to let her drop.


But here is the big reason of why. Piano has a another benefit. It is tough. And at the same time beautiful and full of life. When you keep going and use it as a way of expressing yourself. It builds grit.

What is this thing I am talking about. Grit. I read this book a year ago and it does talk about how piano is one of the things that helps build grit. Because it teaches you how to persevere in the learning of something that it is clearly tough and requires lots of practice for continuous improvement. Grittier kids play more often than others.

When you keep looking for ways to improve your situation for the better, you actually stand a chance of getting it.

Grit, Angela Duckworth

And where does that lead you? Well, if you believe the findings in the book (which you can chose not too), it also tells you that grittier people are dramatically more motivated to find a meaningful focused life. And as a parent, it is hard to wish for something else for my child.

Being a Scientist

This is Little Girl’s C’s dream. It beats being an artist, ballerina, performer, anything. She decided that she wanted to be a scientist a long time ago. And in nights like today where she has a mini-breakdown, she decides she is dumb and not making any progress. That nothing of this is worth it or driving her to that goal. Why it happens I don’t know. Perhaps it was the piano lesson this afternoon. Or just the 6th week of being away from school. And I always struggle with my language.

Invariably (and no judgement there if you have no kids and think this is easy!), I start in a bad way – why, why, why? Why do you think like this, you have no reason, you should not think this way. Then I take a deep breath and I remember I had to ban the should word. And I try and go through the things in her head.

  • How she feels sad when she can’t play the piano well.
  • How she feels embarrassed when we could not get her newly build Lego robot to stand (fun video here)
  • How she hated someone giving her any suggestions on her art work, even when mixing snow in paint was obviously going to make the paint more liquid and not create a snow work of art.

And then the feared came again:

“I will never be a scientist. It is impossible”.

Little Girl C, in her private chat

Embracing Failure

I struggle with my response again, as you can imagine. When your child tells you something like this you want to hug them and tell them everything is possible. But I also don’t want to lose the opportunity to be a “good” mother. One of those that knows the right things to say in each situation. So I try and tell her that it is possible. It is about trying and failing. It is about studying and doing extra work. About learning maths, learning good English, practicing science. But more importantly, it is about loving to learn. And learning to fail. A lot!

“Are you willing to embrace failure? Because if you want to be a scientist, you have to fail a lot to do your experiments”

She insists I am wrong. A scientist is perfect. A scientist has all the answers. It is the peak of the achievement. Once you get there, you are perfect. And she can never be perfect. She fails all day long.

I am not perfect

I shiver at the thought and explain there is no perfection. Mummy is imperfect in so many ways

“No, you are perfect Mummy!”

Whilst this sentence would have made me jump in excitement most other times, not now. I explain to her how many times a day I make mistakes. I quickly grab 2 examples from today and 1 from last week. How I put the wrong number into a global presentation. How I forgot to send materials for a meeting I have been helping run for 6 years. How I missed a deadline today. I did not try and justify it to her. I just listed them out. And given she over-heard a few, she knows I am telling her the truth. I am not just saying it.

I was also honest and told her I did not like failing. I actually was pretty embarrassed about it in a way. But I did not scream and shout or gave up on my work. Rather I identified how it could be fixed or improved and I was honest about it. I also added that I was sure next time I would do a better job. And no-one told me off about it (though they could arguably).

Children and Failure

Whilst she took my examples, she insisted she fails way more than me. I said that was normal, as children are meant to be experimenting and failing. That is why they have so many people to help them grow – parents, carers, teachers, grandparents. Everyone is there to help, not to judge. Failure is just part of the process. Perhaps we ought to find a better word if we can’t get rid of the negative conotation this one has.

In the end, I am not sure if we made progress. Or if you should take any of the above as advice. More than anything, it is a reflection of how this concept unfolds in a Little Mind. And a deep questioning of how you can affect it. More to come, I am sure. From hating failure to loving growth.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.