How Children Cope With Failure

December 8th, 2008.

Kyle was a jackass.

Four months after hiring him for a pretty prestigious paid internship and that was the nicest quality I could ascribe to him, too. Kyle spent his work week fooling around, hitting on the female interns, and surfing the Internet. Assigning Kyle tasks was an exercise in futility. He was too busy playing obnoxious practical jokes on people to do even some minor filing. Kyle was always at least 20 minutes late for his shift; you could set your watch by him. And at least 3 times he had left for his lunch break and never returned. Even more ludicrous than all of this, Kyle nearly always complained because he wasn’t trusted enough to do anything ‘fun’ or ‘important’ or ‘challenging.’

From my point of view, Kyle should have been thanking God he still had his job. Furthermore, if I couldn’t trust him to close the window, how the hell was I supposed to trust him with something ‘challenging?’

Unfortunately, Kyle’s near constant bellyaching drowned out the voice of my better judgment one day. Hoping to motivate Kyle with a little bit of responsibility, I decided to put him in charge for one hour while I met an important client for lunch. Since almost everyone was out of the office for the day, his only real duties would have been answering the phones, taking messages, and avoiding setting the place on fire.

Kyle seemed pretty thrilled by the fact I trusted him to do more than put stickers on files under direct supervision of someone else, so I had high hopes that my little experiment would inspire Kyle to do a better job. In the very least, I told myself, it’s not like much could go wrong.

To make a long story short, I came back exactly one hour later to find Kyle and 6 of his college buddies in the midst of a food fight. Not only that, but every light on the phone was lit up. He hadn’t managed to take a single call.

Furious, I sent Kyle’s buddies home and called him into my office.

“You’ve been complaining for months that no one trusts you with responsibility. I put you in charge and this is how you repay me? By drenching the copy machine in Dr. Pepper?”

“Oh come on! I doubt it’s even broken! It just needs to air out!”

“Kyle,” I asked, calmly, “Are you totally useless?”

“What are you talking about? I bust my ass around here!”

“You’ve failed at every task I’ve ever given you. That’s not how I define ‘hard worker.’ That’s how I define ‘incompetence.’ And let’s be real here! I could train a monkey to do your job!”

“Are you calling me a monkey?”

I sighed and put my head in my hands. “Tell you what. Take the rest of the day off.”



“But that’s not fair!”

I couldn’t believe the gall of this guy, but I was tired of arguing with him so I merely said, “Go.”

I spent the rest of the day dealing with angry clients who felt ignored, cleaning bits of taco salad off of the blinds, and muttering to myself that I would have never entered my chosen field if I had known I would become a glorified babysitter. Just before I was about to leave for the day, the phone rang one more time. I picked it up.

It was Kyle’s Mother.

Before we go any further, I guess I should make note of the fact that Kyle came from a very wealthy family. In fact, his Grandmother, who was extremely well known in the community, had put a good word in for him which is how he got the internship in the first place. Kyle’s Mother was a typical trophy wife who had neither worked nor heard the word ‘no’ in her entire life. She also spoiled her children rotten. For his 20th birthday, she gave Kyle a new car worth more than a lot of people’s homes. It was necessary to for her to do this, Kyle had told me, since he had already wrecked the cars he had gotten for his 16th and 18th birthdays.

Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to our conversation.

“My son just got home,” she snapped as soon as I introduced myself, “and he just told me something very disturbing!”

“Oh?” I inquired.

“He told me you called him incompetent!”

“Ma’am,” I replied delicately, “He is incompetent.”

“How dare you say that! How dare you! You hurt his feelings!”

“Unfortunately Ma’am, I am in the business of running this company. I am not in the business of catering to your son’s feelings.”

“He also said you called him a monkey! A monkey! That’s slander! I could sue you! Any psychiatrist would agree that what you said caused lifelong damage to his self esteem! You can’t put a price on that!”

I was enraged. I was livid. Walking in the door and seeing a bean burrito stomped into the office carpet was small beans compared to the utter fury I felt when this woman threatened to sue me.

“If you feel like I have broken the law, feel free to take your case to a lawyer. But in the meantime, I think there has been some misunderstanding here. Harassing me with calls about your son’s work performance leads me to believe that he is still a child as opposed to a grown man. Because [Company] does not employ children, I’m afraid I’m going to have to fire him. Let him know he can pick up his final paycheck on Friday.”

“You’re firing him?” she asked incredulously.

I hung up on her. Thirty seconds later, the phone rang again. I left my office for the day without picking up.

I didn’t hear from Kyle or his Mother for over a week. I assumed this was because they were busy being laughed out of their lawyer’s office after explaining their ‘slander’ case. However, Kyle eventually did knock on the door of my office sans Mom.

“I just wanted to apologize for the substandard job I did here. I also wanted to tell you I’m sorry my Mother called and yelled at you. If you give me another chance, I swear this will never happen again.”

I didn’t even look up from my folder. “I’ve already given you plenty of chances Kyle. I’m done.”

“I know and I’m sorry. But at least let me work off the cost of a new copy machine. At least let me do that.”

Now that gave me a pause considering Kyle had the means to get the company a new top of the line copy machine without lifting a finger. I found myself relenting.

“I’ll let you work off the copy machine. But the keyword here is: work. No fooling around. Do your job.”

“Thank you! Thank you, I promise I won’t let you down!”

Kyle busted his ass working off the cost of the copy machine. Impressed, I decided to let him keep his job. Not losing an ounce of momentum, Kyle continued to do stellar work and eventually started moving up the corporate ladder. Three years later, when I had chosen early retirement he took over for me.

I guess confronting his own failures and learning from them was what was finally needed to turn him into a man.

This is why it is so troubling to hear that Grand Rapids Public Schools seems to want students to remain children perpetually. It’s bad enough when people like Kyle’s Mother turn their mini terrors loose on the world. It’s totally unconscionable when the school systems decide to help create them.

In case you didn’t read that article, the Grand Rapids School system is beginning a new program where they will avoid giving students an ‘F’ when they fail a class. Instead, they’ll get an ‘H’ and the opportunity to take the class over again. And again. And again.

Apparently, the Superintendent doesn’t want to give 14-16 year old students any ‘life failures.’ I guess it’s far better for students to experience their first failure like Kyle did: In their adult years, at the workplace, where a less kind boss would fire them and put them out on the street.

Someone please tell these people that failure is not a bad thing! It’s a learning experience. How are children supposed to learn to buckle down, work hard, and improve themselves if they’re never given the chance to fail? Sometimes it isn’t until we experience the fruits of our irresponsibility that we learn to pull our shit together.

Furthermore, since when is it the teacher’s job to protect our child’s feelings? Instilling a strong sense of self is something a parent should do. Teachers shouldn’t be worrying about the self esteems of their students. They should be making sure the little fuckers can read.

The problem is parents don’t want to be parents. They want little miniature versions of themselves they can hold and cuddle and then send off somewhere else to be raised.

I was talking to a friend a couple of weeks ago about her school age daughter who managed to pull bad grades in a couple of subjects at school. When questioned about her poor academic performance, her daughter told her the reason she wasn’t working as hard is because she vaguely felt like her new teacher wasn’t as nice as the teacher she had last year.

“Do you think I should talk to him about it during our conference?” she fretted.

“Why would you?”

“Well, what if he doesn’t like her?”

“So what if he doesn’t like her? It’s not his job to like her! It’s his job to teach her!”

“I’m just saying, perhaps she would be doing better in school if he made more of an effort to be nice.”

I groaned and put my head in my hands. “Listen, if you think he’s being abusive, definitely step in. But she’s going to have to cope with authority figures who aren’t sweet as pie to her when she’s an adult, isn’t she? So why not let her practice dealing with differing personalities now instead of demanding that everyone treat her exactly the same way only for her to end up shocked and traumatized when she finds out the rest of the world smells her shit and knows it stinks later?”

“But I know she can do so much better!”

“Then quit giving her excuses and ride her ass until she does!”

My friend took my advice and her daughter ended up significantly improving her grade point average. As far as we both can tell, her oh so important self esteem wasn’t damaged in the process. Bonus: she can read.

Parents, do your fucking jobs! You worry about self esteem and how your children cope with failure. Let teachers worry about science and fucking arithmetic.

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32 Responses to How Children Cope With Failure

  1. Lamp

    Ahhhhh, Welcome back V.

  2. C

    A friend of mine in Canada once linked me an article about teachers using green and purple pens to mark papers, because red was distressing. Her immediate followup was “WTF is wrong with your country?”

    Now, I also took a sociology class in which one assignment had us picking out our strongest memory of k-12 education. Those who actually understood the assignment and didn’t write about their spring break trip to Cancun overwhelmingly wrote about their first F, their biggest F, the F they weren’t expecting, etc. That, combined with a few other points, led up to the professor pointing out that our school system completely kills a person’s desire to learn for the sake of learning, and now we learn to get a letter grade… but what really struck me is that the group I had to share my assignment with was aghast that I’d gotten an F in third grade.
    I *deserved* that F. I was supposed to make a poster and write some notecards and tell the class about squid, and when my speech came up I had no notecards and stood there holding my poster mutely.
    As a side note, squid have 8 tentacles and two feeler-y arms, and while some species are monsters of the deep, most are between 8 and 30 inches long. They have a beak they use to eat fish, and are a favorite food for sperm whales. They can squirt ink like an octopus.
    More relevant in this case might be when I got caught cheating on a history assignment- and busted my ass the entire rest of the semester because how could I be so stupid as to get caught cheating on a little 10 point daily reading assignment? I still want to go back in time and smack myself for that bullshit.

    A do-over is an awesome gift for a student… but they need to not have many. After that, they earn the do-over. Eventually, they don’t get them anymore. Do-overs rarely exist in the real world.

  3. Viola

    Wait a minute. You pay your interns?

  4. C

    I suppose it’d be helpful if I could make a salient point in my rambling.
    I’m pretty willing to give a person a second chance if they ask for it, but that never means a second chance should be taken for granted. “Kyle” is a damn miracle, that he finally recognised that you were going out on a limb for him and shaped up. This H thing? at least if they fuck up they still fail, but I’d hope there’s some sort of limit on the number of times they can do this, per-class and overall.

  5. voyeur

    Failure is just a way to find out how NOT to do something. It’s not the end of the road.

  6. How Children Cope With Failure « Green Eggs and Spam

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  7. raazychx

    The high school I went to does something like this. They will give failing kids an F if they don’t fix the problem, but they put them on academic probation.

    Academic probation is where the kids have to bring in papers from their teachers– which are signed once a week– to show that the kid is making improvements of sorts. But the assistant principle of the school was always chasing these kids around, trying to get them to increase their grades, when he could’ve instead been focusing on improving the school environment.

    You’d know who was on the academic probation list because the announcers on the intercom would call “group meetings” for people to pull them out of class. Case in short– if there was a list of forty to fifty kids being called out, it had to be academic probation.

    This might sound fine and dandy till I say this: Every year, the academic probation list gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger. That’s the thing that worries me.

    Stress might really bum down a student’s life, but I don’t think that more than sixty people could be having serious problems all at once. (That’s 1/4th of the school students, by the way). I’m more inclined to think there’s a different problem behind the scenes.

  8. Eika

    My high school’s not that bad yet, but it’s getting pretty close. I just got out.

    Be happy- I also have those parents who ‘rode my ass’ through middle school. And I got caught cheating in grade 3. Hated the teacher for a long time; best one I’ve ever had.

    If more fucking idiots like my classmates get turned into the world because of this, then I will NOT be pleased.

  9. links for 2008-12-08 « Green Eggs and Spam

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  10. Duke of the Bump

    When have students ever NOT been able to take a class that they failed again? If I failed a class, you could be damn sure I’d be there again over the summer, after school, or the following year.

    Changing the failing letter grade to F is pretty retarded, though.

  11. Duke of the Bump

    I meant changing it to H.

  12. The L

    When I was in first grade, I was a little horror. If the test questions weren’t hard enough, I would change them. If I didn’t feel like staying in my seat, I didn’t. I was in every reading circle, simply because otherwise, I finished assignments quickly and started pestering everybody. I don’t know how my teacher put up with me.

    In second grade, my teacher was more strict. Spelling tests had better have the words in the order they were called out, not the order in which they were listed in the book. If the test says “count by 2’s,” don’t count by 3’s just because you can. Stay the fuck in your seat until it’s time for recess, etc. (This was also the year I was diagnosed with ADHD, which led me to get helpful counseling, and also led to my eventually taking damn near every ADHD drug on the market.) I hated second grade.

    But you know what? Because my behavior was reported to my parents, who promptly tanned my hide, I learned how to behave properly in school. Because spelling words in the wrong order were marked wrong, I learned not to change the rules just for the hell of it. Because I was given detention for changing the directions on my homework assignments, I learned to get things right the first time so you can have a little free time later. Because I was no longer allowed to run the show, I learned how to act like a decent human being. Learning to study took me until college, but I could at least play the school game without detracting from everyone else’s education.

    I understand that some students have emergencies arise that can affect their grades, and that those students should have the opportunity to strike that F from the records. Since slackers who won’t take the opportunity to do so will get F’s anyway, I think the H is a pretty good idea. Second chances are good, but if you don’t take that chance, tough shit.

  13. La BellaDonna

    V, If you weren’t already married, I’d propose. But then, I’ve felt the same way about most of your posts.

    WORST year I had in high school was the Year of Two Fears: Afraid to Try, Afraid to Fail. Now, I’m pretty sure there were some other things going on there as well, because I’d been an A student until then – but it manifested itself in fear. No one in school teaches you that the guy who created Fed Ex went bankrupt TWICE before he came up with a business that succeeded; I think that’s among the important things for students to learn – AFTER they learn to read.

  14. morealexiaplease

    As someone who lives in Grand Rapids, I can say that I agree with you 100% on this topic. However, the GR school system has been floundering helplessly for years, so it isn’t much of a surprise that they would try something like this.

  15. persuasion__usa

    This article was like Christmas.
    It’s nice to hear that Kyle got his rear in gear and shaped up.
    I have an idea/dream/fantasy where you get yourself on television and somehow manage to mass hypnotize everyone who tunes in to your program to do things better, or right, like raising their kids.

  16. T-bird

    I think you might find this article interesting:,9171,1862444,00.html

    I was so relieved that education finally has someone who is throwing “touchy feely” out the window. Results based teaching instead of giving an incompetent teacher tenure after 2 years of service. Yes, thank you.

  17. MatthewT

    Failing is good. I failed Spanish II last year, because I wasn’t paying attention or doing homework. I’m taking it this year, working my ass off, and actually passing. Rather than having my parents step in, talk to the teacher about her teaching style or some bullshit, I started to do the right thing and it paid off. Dallas was looking to implement a similar program to the one that article talks about, I’m still not sure if they did it or not.

  18. Peapodsquadmom

    I just stumbled upon your blog. I think I’m in love. 😉 This was a brilliant post. 100% spot on.

  19. Axon

    aaaaaah. So refreshing!

    D’you know what’s really wrong with kids today?.. h5. I believe you do!

    Fail them early. The sooner they learn that failure can be a great way to learn, grow and develop, the better.

    I’m involved with teaching at a uni. I’ve always been clear, fair, and firm. Given warnings etc. Yet my fail grades are always adjusted up to pass the student… and they wonder why students don’t put in the effort… they don’t need to. They’ll pass anyway! (Which doesn’t help anyone.)

  20. Curvaliscious

    AfreakingMEN! I have a fried or two that are so involved with ensuring that their beloved little babies worlds are not only perfect if you please, but also that they are never ever having to deal with anything stressful, wrong or what have you that they are raising children that are emotionally crippled. Don’t get me wrong, I love my children but I am their MOTHER first and their friend second. Sometimes, life hurts and that’s ok because those hurts make you stronger.

    Failing, hurting, having to work to accomplish things, thinking for yourself, realizing that the world is not perfect is a GOOD thing. I am not going to shove them out into the world unprepared for the harsh realities. I can shelter them to a degree based on their age/mental maturity but sticking my little wonderfuls into a bubble isn’t going to help them one single bit.

    I fear for our future generations…

  21. anastasia

    Interesting post, but what you have to keep in mind is that for people in that class of society, there is no “real world” to grow up to. They don’t need a job, they just inherit the money. They don’t need to work hard, they just inherit the money. They will never get evil eyes from a snooty shop assistant. They will never have to wait outside posh clubs and restraurants in the cold. They will never see a place that’s fucked up, with garbage and broken glass everywhere. They will never go into a shop where the server is downright rude. Everyone will respect them because of their clothes and their perfect hair. These people will never see beyond that flashy little statue on the bonnet of their flashy car. They don’t need to.

  22. Nyxelestia

    And people wonder what America is coming too. My parents just yelled at me when I failed and threatened to take my shit away if I didn’t get my act up.

    Worked like a charm.

    It’s really no fucking wonder America’s so deep in the shit, right now. I’d go on, but it loks like all the other commenters got here before me and have basically said what I planned to, so I’m not going to bother.

    I’ll just leave with this parting shot:

    A-fucking-men, V. Amen.

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  25. slackerjo

    The most surprising thing about this story is that Kyle totally got his shit together.

  26. lilmalfoy

    H? WTF? The kids in my class hardly give a crap when they get straight F’s. Now the school system is going to make that worse. My fav teacher at the moment is a teacher that can be totally viscous. Guess what? Those F students are getting B’s and B+’s in his class. The B students are getting A’s. And he’s the type to not only write the F on your paper, but he has to circle it, underline it, add a comment or two and then call your parents in to discuss why you are failing.

    I think if they forced him to give students “H’s”, he’d shoot himself and then come back from the dead to write “F’s” on the papers or “H” children with his blood.

    Yea. That serious.

  27. infinitysnake

    I know the current trend is to insist we’re all too soft and they all need a good smack on the bottom, but I think the evidence just doesn’t bear this out. My older son is a classic slacker-adhd, bipolar, and completely unmotivated. He’s been punished, threatened, ignored, you name it- and nothing worked until he started high school. There, he got a no-nonsense teacher who didn’t take any crap- but also made sure his students knew they were valued, worthwhile human beings. His attention to my son’s feelings and the much-dismissed self-esteem produced nothing short of a miracle. His attitude changed 100% because someone cared about him and his future, and he started pulling A’s and B’s and actually talks about college now.

    Cracking down isn’t the answer. kids aren’t failing all over because they’re spoiled, they’re failing because their parents are too tired to care, their teachers are underpaid, overwhelmed, or apathetic, and society’s ready to bring the hammer down on them the first time they screw up.

    Now I’m not saying throwing out the red pen is any fix (ha), but I get really steamed with the prevalent attitude that we’re too concerned with kids’ feelings. We take eager, intelligent kids, and put them in a meat grinder. We give them boring material, overcrowded classrooms, politically/racially charged school environments, pile them with expectations, then completely refuse to engage them as individuals…and then we act surprised when they don’t overcome all of this to become stunning successes.

  28. jean naimard

    What is the big deal with self-esteem?

    I went to a French private school (where everything was imported from France: the schoolbooks, the teachers, the teaching methods and most of the classmates).

    Whenever you screwed-up, the teacher invariably endeavoured to publicly humiliate you by encouraging all the students to laugh at you. Needless to say, to face such a strategy, you had two options: either straighten up, or don’t care about what others said.

    I took the easiest way out: not caring about what others say about you. And I still don’t give a hoot, decades later.

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  30. euphoricdance

    I hate when parents complain to teachers, its the most frustrating thing that prevents most teachers from really accomplishing anything. I’ve work along side my mom in an elementary school and I almost can’t believe the bullshit I hear from parents. It’s clear that their kid is stupid, not because the teacher is bad, because the kid just doesn’t care. And there’s little the teacher can do, what they can’t hit them. Any form of punishment aside from failing the kid doesn’t seem to work. Logical solution, blame the teacher. Oh the class is too hard, give them easier work. I’ve actually seen this happen and its very sad. I miss the good old days when teachers had a backbone and didn’t give a fuck. Administration need to stop catering to the parents and get teachers to have a real voice. Yea parents pay taxes, so do teachers, so both parties should have a say.

  31. renaissance

    Kicken knowledge!

  32. MJ Chambless

    Haha when I first started reading your stuff, I thought you were a man. NICE

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