Flourishing through Failure
We all know the old adage (usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin): “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” If we are feeling bold, we might dare to add a third certainty to Mr. Franklin’s list: failure. And with first trimester grades around the corner, it’s safe to say that some of us will be walking with our students through an experience of failure, at some level, very soon.
And this is great.
If you’re surprised to hear that your child’s failure in school is good news, hear us out. We would all prefer to see our children succeed from their first breath onward, and we all ache when we have to watch our children struggle. But it is also true that lessons are learned through failure, and it is a blessing for our little people to learn them now, on a small scale, with a loving parent and caring teacher close at hand to guide them. So when - not if - you find yourself facing your student’s failure, here are some things to consider.
A question of identity for parents. This thought is just for us parents: we must not place the weight of our identity on the small shoulders of our children. Their success or failure is not about us; it is not a litmus test for our worth as people or as parents. Rather, both success and failure are opportunities for us to model biblical thinking and humility for our children. If there’s a disappointing grade staring back at you from your child’s report card, please make sure your reaction has nothing to do with your own pride.
A question of identity for students. Your child’s shoulders are also too small to bear the weight of their own identity. Toiling for the identity of a straight-A student is an effort that will weigh them down; only identity in Christ will stand the greatest tests in life. Hurrah for the chance to remind them that they are not defined by their grades!
The great opportunity to be not-shocked. Our child’s failure should not be a surprise to us. Do not weary your child by expecting perfection, something only Christ has ever achieved. Be sure they know that when they fail, whether through error or inability, you are as always on their side seeking their true good, not just their good performance.
The value of failure as a natural consequence. A failing grade is sometimes very simply a natural consequence, whether a student is struggling with stubbornness, apathy and laziness, or some other heart issue. In this case, that poor grade is a grace to your child: it is a real lesson in the consequences of their actions (or inaction), but on the small scale of a report card. While the same failure to try later in life may have dire consequences, right now they simply have a bad grade, and you have a chance to help them recognize this wake-up call. We know from the book of Hebrews that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). You can help your student see this bad grade as the discipline it is, an opportunity to be trained and to begin developing responsible lifelong habits.
The value of failure after a valiant effort. We have all known the feeling of trying our hardest and still falling short of the mark. This, unfortunately, is part of being human in a broken world, and if your student is experiencing this truth, grieve it with them. Encourage them that their heavenly Father knows their heart, knows the effort they gave, and says that in their weakness he is strong (2 Corinthians 2:9-11), and that is a reason for rejoicing. It is a grace to be reminded of our need for our strong Lord, a grace to be kept humble. Remember, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). And it’s not too much to say that this is also a great chance to point them to the hope of heaven, an eternity of resting in the work that Jesus did perfectly, all tears and frustrations wiped away.
The chance to check for fear of man. If your child is (or you are) particularly struggling with the fact of having failed, you've been given a good chance to check for the sin Proverbs calls “fear of man,” as well. It is so easy to feel heartbroken over failure only because others know about it. As Proverbs puts it, operating from a fear of people proves to be a trap (Proverbs 29:25); instead, “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23).
Oh so many lessons to be learned. Here are just a few of the things that your student can learn through having failed:
Ask for help: It is OK - especially in school! - to need help. Students should know that they can always go to their teachers for help.
Learn from your mistakes: If you can pinpoint what went wrong, avoid it next time! (Of course.)
Be gracious with others: Having known what it is to struggle makes is easier to be compassionate toward others who are struggling. Encourage your student to leave competitiveness behind and look for ways to help struggling classmates in the future.
The experience of success...If this trimester you find yourself beaming over your child’s very successful report card, many of the same takeaways apply: encourage and congratulate that child on work well done, but encourage humility, gratitude, compassion, and a heart that works hard for the right reasons.
Perhaps it does all comes down to the question we started with: identity. When your child is asked, “Who are you?,” may their answer be neither “a good student” nor “a bad student,” but “a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.”