Failure is a teacher

This is not a news column. I write here about my family. Sometimes I report on my own struggle to be a good and faithful man in an increasingly weird world. My goal is to do it with a dash of style and a dollop of humor. I never, ever, want to be accused of laying it on too thick. My nightmare is that I’ll come across as preachy.

Occasionally a news story comes along, however, that practically stands up on its spindly hind legs and screams: Preach, Brother Matthew!

So, settle in. Here comes a sermon.

The hardest thing to do is watch your kids fail. It goes against every parental instinct. To sit back and watch them fail at something they want to be good at, that you want them to be good at, or that you and they think they need to be good at, is excruciating.

I am lately reminded of this on Saturday mornings at a local school gym near our house. Here, Patrick and Sally train for the upcoming Gaelic football season in our new neighborhood. They have no idea what they are doing, and it shows. The kicking, the passing, the dribbling—it’s all bad. No bueno. I find it hard to watch.

But as excruciating as it is to stand by and do nothing while your child flails away, it’s nothing compared with the upswell of pride you feel when they figure it out. The two things are related: If you can’t handle the pain of failure, you can’t enjoy the thrill of success.

Some things come easily to some people. That doesn’t change the fact that the greatest satisfaction in life comes from overcoming obstacles. Earned success tastes better, even if you have to take a few Gaelic footballs to the face.

God put us here to be fruitful and multiply. He wrote on your heart and mine how to do it: Have children, love them with all your heart, push them to be the best they can be, forgive them their trespasses, give them an example of goodness to follow. We know this intuitively.

Sometimes, though, because our lives are chaotic, our intuition goes screwy. We read the instructions upside down. We scramble God’s commandments and feed them back to ourselves in simplified form. Usually it amounts to this: Don’t hurt anyone. Fine. It’s what comes next that that’s the killer: Make sure your kids get into good colleges.

It would be so easy to mock the parents who were recently indicted as part of the college admissions scam. They bribed college officials and paid to have people take the SATs for their children. They embarrassed themselves. They conspired to cheat the system because they had the money to do it and the system was open to being cheated.

How easy to laugh, shake your head and say, “What a bunch of idiots!” It’s easy to think yourself better than them.

But are you? Am I? Really?

Saying I’d never pay $500,000 to get my kid into USC isn’t difficult. I don’t have that kind of money, and I’m betting you don’t either. It’s also quite within my power to say I wouldn’t cheat on a test, because cheating is wrong. That’s obvious.

What’s not obvious is when to stop yourself from hurting your kids in the guise of helping them. To succeed, first we need to fail. That’s the paradox.

Put aside for a moment that those college-scam parents were rich. Put aside that some were famous. Put aside that people get into elite colleges because their grandparents endowed the dining hall.

All true, but put it aside. These parents aren’t really so different from the rest of us. They love their kids and want the best for them. They wanted to help them and did the only thing they could think to do, which was to protect them from failure.

That was a mistake, but I’m guessing they realize that now. Failure is a teacher. Failure is a motivator. Failure teaches humility. It even works for parents.

Don’t get me wrong. You shouldn’t deliberately put obstacles in a kids’ way (says the guy who signed his up for Gaelic football). But if you insulate them from failure, you’ll insulate them from happiness.

I told you it was going to get preachy around here. I hope I didn’t lay it on too thick.