Thursday, January 31, 2013

Letting Them Fail

Today on Facebook one of my friends posted this.  It's an article about the importance of letting your children fail, about how, in trying to cushion them, you actually weaken them.

I've been an advocate of failure for a long time.  In fact, just a few weeks ago, at the first parents' meeting of Holston Pony Club, I found myself saying to a few new parents, "The great thing about Pony Club is that it will let your child fail," and hoping like heck that they agreed that was a good thing.

Pony Club is an international youth riding organization; it's like 4-H, but without pigs or knitting.  Just horses (or ponies.  You're not required to ride a pony, which is useful since my daughter is 5'9".)  In pony club competitions, kids compete in teams.  They're judged on riding, but also on horse management, which is how well they take care of their mounts and equipment and how prepared they are for competition.  And--this is the super duper best thing--parents are not allowed anywhere near their children.  Literally.  Once competition begins, parents have to stay out of the barns.  They may not shout advice to their children.  They may not approach their children in warmup or on the way to the cross country course.  They may not debrief their children until the dog-end of the day, when the barns are closed and the children are too tired to listen to anything parents have to say.

This is awesome sauce.  Your child succeeds or fails.  Without you.  Starting, if you're my child, at age five or six.

You'd think failure would have some sort of crushing effect, but I'm here to tell you it doesn't seem to.  When my daughter's team notoriously finished 17th out of 17 teams in both overall score and horse management at a showjumping rally a couple of years ago, they shrugged it off with the same insouciance that they'd shrugged off a truly staggering number of formal inspection penalty points.  "Horse was dirty, tack was dirty, boots were dirty," my daughter said, waving her hand.  "Whatever."

They were the youngest team at the rally, shorthanded and inexperienced.  Our club had a second team, which was stacked with all our older members who were trying to qualify for the national championships.  In the spirit of solidarity, the older team made, so they told me later, periodic trips to their younger members' stalls, extolling them to clean things, straighten their tack room, pick the stalls, do something.  "And they just sat there," one of the older girls said, "eating crackers."

Yep.  So there they were with their 17th-place ribbons.  Whatever.  Nobody shamed them.  They didn't sob.  "We were tired and we were little," my daughter said.  "Also Ian had a broken foot.  And we were arguing about who was supposed to do what." 

Our club didn't stage an intervention for them.  We didn't tell them they'd disgraced our good name.  The big girls swept the awards and rode at nationals. 

The next year at rally, my daughter's horse, saddle, and boots were clean.  A teammate remembered to wear her pinney to formals.  Another teammate drew up a feed chart before the rally began.  They asked if the club could buy a set of plastic shelves, to make organizing the tack room easier. 

Last year at dressage rally, my daughter's team was first in horse management.  Over the course of the weekend they didn't receive a single penalty point.

My level of involvement?  Zero.  Except, perhaps, a willingness to let them fail.