Fear of failure, by proxy

Alex is doing a presentation (“spreekbeurt”) at school today, about dragons.

I’ve done plenty of presentations, academically, profesionally and recrationally. I’m the kind of person who sweats bullets over homework, stays up whole nights studying for exams, and freaks out at the idea of being unprepared. Abi’s the same.

So it’s hard for me when Alex shows a stubborn lack of interest in his own school work. When I offer to help, he gets grumpy and insists he can do it himself. When I ask him to turn off his game and actually do the work, he gets angry. I get annoyed at his attitude. Everyone is miserable.

I so want to help! I want him to do get good grades! I want him to impress his classmates with his mad PowerPoint skills, and encyclopedic knowledge of all things draconic! What can’t he just do what I’d do?


I want?” This isn’t about me. Every parent wants their child to work hard, to do their best, to excel. But what if they don’t? Disappointment? Scorn?

“Look” I said. “If you don’t spend more time on this presentation, you’re might fail. Is that what you want?”

“Well, live and learn!” Alex said defiantly.

He has the truth of it. This isn’t a doctoral thesis defense, or a speech at TED. It’s a five-to-ten minute classroom presentation at primary school. If he fumbles, all that will happen is that he’ll get a poor grade for this one thing. It won’t stop him from moving up to the next class after the summer. It won’t stop him from getting a job when he graduates. It won’t stop me loving him.

What is the lesson I want Alex to learn from this non-critical event, in the safe, nurturing environment of his primary school? Is it that he should live in constant fear of failure or poor performance, and that the only way to avoid it is to spend all his time trying to stop the hammer from falling? Or that failure (or even just imperfection) is part of life; that it is something he can deal with; that afterwards he can pick himself up and carry on?

Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to be the best to be recognized?

Not everyone can be the best in their chosen field. Not every child is above average. I don’t want to glorify failure or advocate laziness, but in the pursuit of excellence we should not vilify the ordinary.


3 Replies to “Fear of failure, by proxy”

  1. We part company a bit here.

    I’m concerned because people build things up in their heads as being difficult. Alex is particularly prone to doing this about any kind of work, including schoolwork. And he’s only going to get over that building-up process if he actually gets over the hump and does it, over and over again.

    This project doesn’t matter, particularly. But when something that does matter comes up, if he’s only learning to apply himself and get over his visceral reluctance then, he’s at a significant disadvantage. And because he’s a kid, and has kid-level judgement, he’s likely to underestimate the consequences of serious failure.

    I want him to learn a set of skills about applying himself, doing the unpleasant as well as the pleasant work, and deferring present gratification for future benefit. These are the projects to learn that on, before he gets to ones where he should already know how to do it.

  2. There’s a lot to think about, both in Martin’s post and Abi’s response. My son Kevin (~same age as Alex) is very similar, and we struggle with this every day. It’s compounded by the number of uninteresting (to him) subjects he must study. If you figure this out, please let me know!

  3. I kind of agree with both viewpoints – it’s important to get into the habit of trying, to give yourself the best (or most realistic/sensible) chance of succeeding, but then once you’ve done that to be reasonably relaxed about the outcome.

    We have a similar problem to what Abi describes – blanket resistance to homework and practice but coupled with unhappiness about things not getting easier!

    It’s difficult to maintain a productive/supportive approach when it’s so frustrating, but one thing I have learned with kids is they change attitude for no apparent reason. Here’s hoping it’s just another phase of development.

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