Failing Safely

7 March 2020

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald 2020 International Women's Day special 7 March 2020.

It is dangerous to generalise about boys and girls because there are children everywhere who defy the stereotypes. Nevertheless, one tends to have specific conversations with boys or girls over and over again. 

As a teacher, I have never encountered such sloppy work as that cheerfully presented to me by boys. A combination of poor fine-motor control, overconfidence and genial disregard for any actual learning frequently resulted in illegible scrawl on crumpled scraps of paper. These boys would meet my disappointment with amused but generous puzzlement. They wanted to think the best of me, even if I was mysteriously bad-tempered. So the message for my errant boys focused on jolting them out of complacency.

Girls, on the other hand, tend to err in the other direction. A Year 8 student disciplined for her first minor infraction crumpled into sobs three days later because – as we found out – she believed she had sacrificed any chance of a leadership position or a university place. Another girl snuck out of bed to study for biology. In her anxiety, she was copying out the entire textbook, word for word, more to appease the examination gods than for any discernible academic benefit. A strong and conscientious student, she had run out of effective study tasks, but was still beset with fear that she hadn’t done enough. So the message for my errant girls focused on the unhappy fruits of perfectionism.

A colleague summed it up to me this way: a girl may hope and dream of an A for achievement and an A for effort, but a boy will more likely aspire to an A for achievement and an F for effort. Perfectionism can be an asset. It can be channelled to drive the perseverance and self-discipline essential to success. But it is also linked to poor mental health including self-criticism, anxiety and depression, all of which are more common among women.

Perfectionism is on the increase among both boys and girls, but it is more frequent and more acute in girls. Some researchers say this is because girls are exposed to more stressors than boys. This may be because girls mature earlier and thus spend longer in the adolescent stage when ‘‘rumination’’ (dwelling on the negative) and ‘‘socially prescribed perfectionism’’ (the pressure to display a perfect life, amplified on social media) emerge. Whatever the societal causes, our job as teachers and parents is to bring our children gently back to earth when their thinking becomes untethered from reality.

The first thing we can do is challenge the belief that imperfection is failure or that failure is catastrophic. When our children regularly experience losing, they learn to bounce back. It’s no surprise that playing sport boosts confidence and self-image in girls and women and I would encourage participation in music and drama for the same reasons – performance under pressure, dealing with failure and the joy of teamwork.

You might also consider your daughter’s options for high school. Why? Many studies have found that men are generally more confident than women, in every country and every sphere of life. The ubiquity of this confidence gap suggests a biological origin, but a recent study found that there is one environment in which girls’ self-confidence is exactly the same as boys’ – single-sex schools. This may explain why graduates of girls’ schools are much more likely to go into male-dominated courses and industries.

We also need to examine whether our parenting and teaching practices are unwittingly contributing to the problem. Teachers, for instance, are constantly considering how to teach students to fail well, and especially how to encourage girls to overcome risk-aversion in the classroom. Extracurricular programs – from debating to outdoor education – can also have a powerful effect. Parents have an important role to play. A small minority of parents aggressively seek special treatment for their child but that’s not the main issue. We are soaked in a culture that equates stress with harm, so adults are constantly rescuing children from their problems. We do it with the best of intentions, but by protecting children from the consequences of their decisions or the vicissitudes of life, we signal that (a) failure is to be avoided at all costs, and (b) we have no faith in their capacity to manage when something goes wrong. And children will take these misgivings to heart.

This is why I wrote to parents at our school at the beginning of the year and asked them not to step in. I’m not suggesting that we treat children like adults. They need reminders and structures and assistance, along with the occasional indulgence. But they also need to believe in their own agency, to have the experience of getting it wrong, and waking up the next day to find that all is not lost and the world is still spinning on its axis. So why not let your child experience (age-appropriate) mistakes in daily life? If they forget their lunch, don’t deliver it. If they are constantly late, let them see what happens when they let others down. If they’re not studying hard enough, let them fail. The earlier they experience failure, the lower the stakes. And early failure will build their confidence, autonomy and resilience, preparing them for the moment when the consequences are far more significant.

Finally, talk to your children about your own mistakes. Tell them about your disappointments, failures and stupid decisions, and share with them how you came back from it. Let them see that success is not final and failure is not fatal. 

Ms Elizabeth Stone