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Why I Taught my Kids to Embrace Failure: Learning to Love the Red Marks

Updated: May 29, 2023


Years ago, I watched a Christian film simply titled Coach. I don’t remember many details of the movie, but I do remember one quotation from it. It went something like:

“We’ve victories out of defeats, successes out of failures, and wisdom out of blunderings.”

My kids have heard me say that dozens if not hundreds of times. The truth is, if I want my kids to have victories, successes, and wisdom, then I have to be willing to embrace the defeats, failures, and blunderings that birth those achievements. As a parent, that is hard. Really hard. But, it is critical in helping them learn.

Since I believe it was so important, I actually chose intentional ways to incorporate that philosophy into my homeschool environment. For example, when it came to grading my kids’ papers, I always used a red pen. I marked nearly everything that was wrong with the paper – and I didn’t just put an X over the problem, I either wrote step-by-step solutions for them to study, or I instructed them to find the solution.


In their writing assignments, I was very picky. I put red marks on more than just the grammatical errors. I also made notes on style, tone, and technique. And frankly, I often told them that they could ignore a grammar rule if it helped them communicate more clearly in certain circumstances. In other words, I taught them to master the rules so well, that they could intentionally manipulate them in order to better communicate. After all, effective communication was my ultimate goal for them.


For example, I might let them start a sentence with a conjunction (like I’ve done a few times in this post) if they could prove to me it furthered the tone they were seeking. Then, we would go over the assignment together in great detail, and the first thing I would say to them is, “Learn to love the red marks.” The second thing I would quote, is the above gem from Coach.

And, before you criticize me too heavily, please understand that I also used the red pen to highlight the things they did well. I might say something like, “Look how beautifully you wrote this sentence up here.” And I would show them not only where they excelled, but that they COULD excel. It helped them know they could pursue excellence and achieve it if they saw that they had already done it. We even made a game out of proofreading. They learned to ENJOY finding their own errors before I could find them. We would race to see who could find the sneakiest errors. It became fun for them to self-correct because they knew it would lead to a red-mark free paper. They realized that the red marks were not punishment, but rather the process of perfecting.


Furthermore, I never recorded a “grade” for their daily seat work. To me, the purpose of that seat work was to try to practice and implement what they were learning. It was to show me, as the teacher, what they were getting, and what they were missing. I didn’t punish my kids with a bad grade for not getting it the first time around, or even the tenth time around. I used daily work as a tool for developing excellence, not as a punishment for not exhibiting mastery of new information. Grades were never my priority – mastery was. We didn’t move forward until they truly mastered the material.

In the same way that a musician or an athlete must commit to daily practice in order to achieve mastery of their skills, daily schoolwork was our practice sessions. A piano student isn’t punished in her daily practice sessions. She uses those sessions to figure out what she knows and doesn’t know and then tries to correct the mistakes. A good piano student will not just play the wrong note and move on. She will take a second look at the missed note and try again until she gets it right. She will probably mark her music to remind her to pay attention to the musical notation that continually trips her up. She will practice through the hard sections a few extra times to help cement it in her memory. And, when her best efforts fail, she’ll probably be assigned the same music again for another week . . . and maybe another week . . . and then another. The point is, when she sits down for her piano recital at the end of the year, and masterfully plays her piece – even when all the nerves of performance attack her – the weeks of failure will show. Not because she fails in her performance, but because she nails it! She’ll experience the thrill of victory because she put in the weeks or even months of failure in order to learn, grow and achieve excellence. That was my philosophy in homeschool.


I wasn’t punishing my kids with the red marks. The red marks were a great tool to help us get closer to success. The red marks helped us get the victories, successes, and wisdom that we all strive to gain.

They highlighted what we needed to review. They helped me, as the teacher know better how to teach. The red marks jumped off the page at us and immediately had us zero in on the problems. They gave us a focal point to tackle and fix.

Little by little, month by month, year by year, their assignments had fewer red marks. My girls became more proficient at catching their own errors and self-correcting before turning in assignments. They worked a little harder to try to achieve a red-mark free grade.

When my oldest recently graduated college cum laude, I admit that I was overwhelmingly grateful for her hard work and determination. But, it wasn’t the academic scores that made me happy. It was the demonstration of her character that stood out to me. I had seen her struggle for years. I had seen her fail and nearly lose hope at times. I had seen her fight feelings of worthlessness because of her grades or performances. I knew what it had cost her to get that cum laude achievement. The thrill of that victory was only possible because of the agony of so many defeats preceding it.

In the same way, when my second-born made the dean’s list every semester she was in school, it wasn’t the academics that made me so glad, it was the victories, successes, and wisdom she had gained from learning to love the red marks. With my youngest just starting her college career, I know she’ll have her share of struggles, failures, and defeats just like we all do. But, I look forward to seeing her turn those low points into victories.

As a parent, I have to fight my urge to protect my kids from failure. I want to run in and pave the way for them so it is smooth and problem free. But I know in the long run,

letting them struggle is an important and loving gift I can give them.

As parents, we often go a little overboard when it comes to removing all obstacles in our kids’ lives. I think the new term is being lawn-mower parents that mow down everything in front of their kids so the kids don’t have to struggle. Well, we need to cut it out (pun intended). Stop paving the way. Let them pave their own way a bit. They need those struggles to grow.

It really makes the contrast more wonderful and the thrill of victory is so much sweeter when they’ve learned from the agony of defeat. I encourage you to not only let your kids fail, but teach them to embrace failure as a stepping stone to success. They need to stumble now in order to walk and then run. They need to fail in order to know how to succeed and they need to struggle in order to learn.


 

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