Embracing Failure

While President Obama was making history, delivering his inaugural address, I confess that I was more interested in observing the family dynamics, particularly the two “first children.” Over the years, I have come to recognize behavioral cues that signal not only success and happiness in the journey from childhood to adulthood but that are also barometers of a healthy family. The whimsical and confident demeanor of both Malia and Sasha on that historic day were a heartwarming affirmation to me that our new First Family will serve as superb role models for today’s parents and children.

If I had a crystal ball, I would say that their personalities are most likely a result of their parents instilling values over the years that embraced their failures, their mistakes, and their challenges. Somehow I don’t see Michelle running to school with forgotten homework or Barack (AKA The President) enhancing a science project the night before it was due. Okay, I’ll give you Grandma bailing them out of a delicate situation – maybe! I clearly observed children whose list of positive labels for themselves far outweighed any negative attributes they might possess.

Here’s my point, which has been confirmed by all kinds of research and anecdotal information, including this dialog between Christine Carter and Kelly Corrigan of the Center for Raising Happy Kids: we must resist the instinctive urge to rescue our children! They will learn that they need to practice, to change their strategy, or to ask for help – all assets that build resilience, which is the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity.

Disappointment breeds strength and relies upon connections which we seek out to resolve our issues. One of the best examples I have come across is the brief essay Kelly Corrigan reads to a gathering of women; it is called “Transcending – Words on Women and Strength.” It’s worth the five minutes, both for your own validation (Moms!) and for inspiration to coach your children to accept their shortcomings and to honestly evaluate their identified areas for improvement. That way they will know, when the chips are down (or when their parent is the center of “Washington Woodstock” as the Inauguration has been dubbed!), that they can rely upon their own self-confidence to get them through. If you needed a reality check, you just had to look at Michelle – whether fist-bumping her husband after he won the nomination or selecting a statement gown for the Inaugural Balls.

A great book that underscores the concept of embracing failure is “A Good Day” by Kevin Henkes, the story of how a mouse turns lemons into lemonade. Four animals each face small disappointments (the bird loses a prized tail feather, the dog tangles his leash around the fence, the fox has lost sight of his mother, and the squirrel drops a coveted acorn). These momentary losses quickly are turned into gains, however, as each overcomes his transient defeat. A little girl eventually proclaims, with all the creatures proudly assembled in her back yard, “Mama! What a good day!”

When the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna, wrote a letter to sisters Sasha and Malia about growing up in the White House, they conveyed all the same life experience and advice in language that resonated for them: “…Go to anything and everything you possibly can….” Gain the experience. Handle the challenges. Enter the fray. Make the mistakes. Leave your comfort zone. “It is your turn to fill the White House with laughter,” they conclude. While the young women were sharing the sisterhood of the White House, they really were imparting much more – rising above through experience.

There are no shortcuts to successful adulthood that do not go through the land of mistakes and failure, yet that road is lined with happiness, self-reliance, and laughter if it is navigated through all the detours.

Tuck-in Tips

  • Talk about a time when a parent bailed you out of a mess. What, if anything, did you learn from that experience?
  • Talk about a time when you used your own brain to figure out a problem. What did you learn from that experience?
  • Describe how you think Sasha and Malia were feeling at their father’s inauguration ceremony. Choose three words that you think label how they were acting.