The Importance of Failure

No one likes to fail. Everywhere we look there are aphorisms that encourage us to keep trying! You’re not learning if you’re not failing! It’s not failure but a lesson! No matter how often our kids hear this message, it doesn’t make it any easier. For gifted kids, it is particularly difficult: things come easily to them, they’re perfectionists, they’re intense. They fail less and have less practice failing than other kids their age. Experiencing failure and persevering through it, however, is essential to helping gifted kids succeed in the long run.

I tell parents who are interested in signing up for the class that my goal is for their child to fail every day. Failure is a common struggle with gifted kids: things come easily to them for years and when they are finally challenged they have no idea how to tackle it. I’ve spoken with many gifted adults who say they didn’t have to study or even try until college, and then had no idea how to.

This week at FWD we took a look at the American codebreaking duo William and Elizebeth Friedman. We talked about their role in WWI and WWII, and specifically about Elizebeth’s system of decoding (if this interests you, check out the book The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone: The kids loved learning about the spies and intrigue, and were excited to start cracking some codes.

The first one – a basic transposition cipher – was easy enough. The second cipher caused a bit more angst – a Caesar Shift cipher – but wasn’t too hard. The last code was where the trouble began. We had learned about frequency analysis and the kids were to use this to figure out a cryptogram. Guess and check is an important part, and I had talked about how it would take Elizebeth weeks or months or solve some codes, and she failed many, many times throughout. Most of the kids were reluctant to guess which letter was which – they wanted to know if they were right or not (I’ll discuss perfectionism in another blog soon!).

A Croton class hard at work!

One boy stared at it for a few minutes, then declared that he was bored and didn’t want to do it anymore. Another boy was so frustrated and angry that he snapped a pencil in two and had to take a break to calm down. Two girls burst into tears and declared that it was IMPOSSIBLE. Another girl ripped her paper into pieces. Sound familiar? These are common reactions – especially in our class full of zebras. It’s hard to put kids in situations where you know they will be upset and frustrated, but they need the chance to learn what failure feels like and how to push through it.

In the end, most of the kids managed to solve the codes and were so excited to go home and see if their parents could do it too. They wanted to write their own codes and asked if we could learn more types of ciphers next week. They had failed, been uncomfortable, then persevered to achieve their goal. My co-teacher and I had spent most of the hour talking them down and helping them work through the emotional labor of failure, and in the end they learned that the reward of conquering the problem was greater than the discomfort of failure.

The sooner and more often gifted kids are exposed to failure, the sooner they will be more comfortable with it. They’ll never like it, never embrace it, but hopefully they’ll learn how to work through it.

Some tips for helping gifted kids with failure:

  • Be aware of the environment when encouraging failure. You don’t want them to be embarrassed or the only one who is struggling. A small group of peers or close family members is preferable.
  • If you think they may struggle with a project or activity, give them a head’s up. Tell them the activity is going to be a challenge and they may not get it right away, which is totally fine. Also give them an out: tell them they can take breaks or try it again later if they feel overwhelmed.
  • Model failure. If you are struggling with something – work, house project, new skill – talk to your child about it! Bring it up at the dinner table and describe how you felt, how you handled the situation, and the outcome. Put yourself out there!
  • Find a peer group. Most gifted kids spend their days with neurotypical kids. The school work is easy and they don’t have much in common as far as interests. Finding another zebra will let them challenge each other as well as seeing another kid who thinks like they do fail in similar ways.
  • Teach relaxation techniques. Help them recognize signs that they are getting frustrated and losing control, and to be advocates for themselves. Deep breaths, taking breaks, cold air or water, counting backwards – whatever works for them.

Have a gifted kid who struggles with failure? What techniques have work for him/her? Let me know!