Tag Archives: failure

And the award goes to….

THE only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing.

And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in matric for “Social Awareness and Compassion for Others”. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

It’s that time of year again. The time of school prizegivings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prizegiving, “Which one’s your kid?” in his Headline Act column in Lifestyle Magazine last week. He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation?

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed. I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to … “Thanks Mom,” he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year-old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prizegiving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning. Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscar and Nobel prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decisions. Those tools are called human beings.

Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nabokov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards and makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prizegivings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition. Why top 10 and not top 11? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three best parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prizegiving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never “got you”?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those, that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

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Fail?

If you’re a parent I have some bad news for you: Success for your child is not inevitable. In fact, he’s going to be a loser. He’ll be trampled over on the soccer field by bigger, faster boys, and some smart girl at school will consign him to ‘first loser’s position’ in Maths.

A demotivational poster from despair.com

Of course, I’m mimicking the language of a particular approach to life and parenting that believes we are all destined for success. With the right amount of positive thinking and avoidance of negative thoughts, our children can achieve greatness. This philosophy reached its absurd climax in Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret, which appears to advise people to turn their gaze away from people who have failed.

In this approach, ‘success’ for children is defined as winning awards, making the A team, being perky and positive at all times, and one day making lots and lots of money. Failure to achieve some of these goals in childhood, which is inevitable for most kids, is experienced by parents as a blow to their ego.

Which begs the question, when children ‘fail’ whose disappointment is it really, yours or theirs?  Parents who live vicariously through their children are attempting to make up for their own experiences of failure through their children’s success. The child becomes a narcissistic extension of the parent, placing huge pressure on the child to perform. This view of success requires not just that your child triumphs, but that others must fail.

It’s human to admit that when your child is outperformed by other children, it stings a little. You want your child to be the one scoring goals for the team or being chosen for Science Olympiad, and you experience an uncomfortable moment when you discover your best friend’s child has been chosen for extension work and yours hasn’t.

Don’t pretend to yourself you don’t have these feelings, as some writers of self help motivational texts might advise. There comes a powerful and calming release from accepting that you are as susceptible to the same 7 deadly parental sins as anyone else, especially pride and envy.

Put your child’s ‘failure’ in perspective. He’s on a long journey in which the prize of success, as defined in a constructive way, goes to the one who endures, not the one who wins the first sprint. Children develop in spurts at different times. Some surge ahead now while others surpass them later. Some kids thrive at school while others find their niche only after that. Some children never lead the pack in measurable ways but succeed in being their best self.

Part of keeping things in perspective is revisiting your definition of success. Children are aware of the material ways society defines success, so it’s your job to stand tall for them. Remind them that a successful child is one who overcomes fear, takes necessary risks and keeps trying.  A timid child’s belated victory over the high slide in the playground is a victory to be acknowledged, not an embarrassment because his peers are already riding bikes. A girl who trips in 60m dash, keeps running and comes last, is a person whose courage should be celebrated.

It’s these moments that define you as a parent and lay a solid foundation for your child’s success. Steps to consider when your child stumbles:

  • Read your child’s emotions because some situations don’t need the topic of disappointment to be raised, as some events don’t need to be rehashed;
  • If you do say something, reassure your child how much respect you have that he tried his best;
  • Then redirect him towards the memory of past successes or things he is good at;
  • Finally, don’t blame others or promise to change what has happened (eg, phone his school to demand that he be given the Best Footballer trophy that was rightly his).

It’s a mistake to treat your child’s failure as contaminating and as a threat to your ego and your family’s legacy of success. If you do that, you run the serious risk or raising children who become fearful and overly-dependent, selfish, or very materialistic.

Bill Gates is said to have quipped that, ‘Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces people into thinking they can’t lose.’Our children do lose. If we, as parents, understand the inevitability of these necessary defeats, then we are helping our children to become the best versions of them selves over time.