The Midrash Tanchuma this week relates how in Yaakovs dream he saw the angels representing all the nations of the world climbing up the ladder and then at different points falling back down. None were able to ascend and continue to ascend all the way. Hashem coaxed Yakov to ascend the ladder himself, but fearing he would fall like the other malachim, he refused. Hashem promised him that if he would trust and climb the ladder, he and his children would never fall. Yaakov was too nervous, and ultimately did not ascend the ladder. Hashem then said, “Had you climbed, you and your descendants would never have fallen, now however, there will be ups and downs, galus and geulah”.
The fear of failure is one of the main stumbling blocks in a kids chinuch. Outside influences and difficulties in learning certainly make education a challenge, but more often than not it is the student who holds himself back form success. Even Yaakov Avinu, who was promised by Hashem not to fear, could not get over his fear of failure. Unfortunately, many would rather not try than to face failure.
However, failure is the only time a person knows he is pushing his limits. When we only do things that we are successful in, we never test our limits, we gravitate towards easy tasks, and build up a habit of not trying or giving up. Failure is when we get to really know ourselves, and how many kids really know themselves? In the past, failure was natural and a necessary part of life. Certainly, a baby knows about failure as they navigate the world and learn new skills. Failure is how we learn, and what is education without learning?
It is important for kids to feel safe enough to fail. If we analyze why kids are afraid to fail and so don’t try, it is usually because they don’t feel they will have the support and only face disappointment and ridicule. It is important for us to show kids that failure is ok, as long as they tried. Unfortunately, we are so concerned about not offended kids or fear that we will say or do the wrong thing that sends them off the derecho. And that’s true, it’s a real issue too, but there is a way to balance. Often when I have a kid in my office who has messed up. I ask them how they prefer me to react to what they did, laying out options:
- Let it go, its not a big deal, move on and forget about it.
- Have a serious talk that might include tough words, discussions about expectations, repercussions, but ultimately growth and taking responsibility.
They almost always say they prefer 1 but know that I’ll probably go with 2. I then explain to them that going with number 1, though easier now, implies low or no expectations of the student, giving up on them or trying to work things through. It sort of means this kid cant change so why bother.
Number 2, though more uncomfortable and painful, comes from an assumption that this boy has a lot of potential, that there should be expectations of him, and that disappointment might be the appropriate temporary response because what they did was really beneath them. I then offer them the option again, and they unanimously choose option 2.
We have to know, kids will whine and cry and manipulate to get out of trouble, but they resent it when they succeed. They will torture and drive you crazy when you lay down boundaries and expectations, but as long as you make it clear its coming from love and faith in them that they can uphold certain expectations, it will ultimately succeed. They will fight it, but that will just be immaturity, it might take a few (painful) years, but they’ll come out of it. However, I can tell you from what kids tell me, when they get away with things, when we react too “open-mindedly”, when they succeed in manipulating, when we ONLY react to them with Rachamim, they feel like no one cares or believes in them, or that their parents/teachers care more about themselves than their children/students, care more about “being cool” or don’t want to be bothered with arguing. Ultimately, they end up pushing boundaries further, hoping at some point if they take things too far then someone will be forced to demonstrate they love them enough to stop them, to believe in them and have expectations of them.