Tutor Recommends Failing To Build Grit - For Parents AND Teens

As an academic tutor and test prep coach, I deliver public talks on topics relating to education and adolescents. Last night, at my “Taming Anxiety Among Teens” talk at the Eastchester Public Library, a parent asked, “How do you keep your kid going even when they’re failing?

This morning, I woke up to an email from a student at Bronx Community College where I teach American history part-time:

Good Evening Professor. 

I find myself struggling on your quizzes a lot more than I expected, especially in the writing questions. I always saw myself as an excellent writer, but the low grades are bringing down my confidence…. It keeps making me feel like I should drop the class. 

Hmmmmm.  Fear of failure.  Low confidence.  Struggle aversion.  In kids from upper-middle-class backgrounds where I tutor, and in kids from low-income backgrounds where I teach.  “Clearly,” I thought, “this needs to be the topic of my next blog!”


Photo by Josh Marshall on Unsplash

Photo by Josh Marshall on Unsplash

Life in the Slow Lane - That Goes for Parents, Too!

The first piece of advice I gave* to the parent last night was the importance of showing your child how you fail – and keep trying despite not being perfect.  “Show them that the world does not end when we fail!” I exhorted. “When we fail, we learn and we grow. Thomas Edison failed thousands of times before he got the lightbulb right!?” (*You can watch the entire “Taming Anxiety” talk here.) 

In retrospect, I wish I’d given the audience the example of my dismal performance as a competitive swimmer in junior high and high school.  It’s easy to laud failure when it leads to the long-sought-after goal (i.e., Edison’s lightbulb). It’s harder to see the value in failing for failing’s sake — but that’s exactly what I’m advocating.

In the case of my swimming, I entered the sport late – seventh grade.  So, while I made the junior varsity and varsity teams, I always swam in the “slow lane” during practice – and I almost always lost the very few races Coach even put me in.  In fact, I remember the ONE time I did win – probably because it was so rare!

Failure didn’t make me quit, though.  It didn’t even make me want to quit.  The only reason I stopped swimming competitively was because show rehearsals took place at the same time, and by eleventh grade, I’d finally gotten a role in the school play.  (Tenth-grade auditions: another failure!)  I wanted to act more than I wanted to swim competitively, passion rather than performance dictated my choice.

Photo by Chuttersnap on Unsplash

Photo by Chuttersnap on Unsplash

Failure’s Lessons

What did “failing” at competitive swimming teach me? First, I learned that I love exercising, in general, and swimming, in particular.  It made my body feel strong and healthy, which in turn, kept my mind sharp and focused.  Second, I learned that I was “good enough” at swimming to incorporate it elsewhere in my life.  The next year, even though I wasn’t on the swim team, I got a part-time job teaching young kids how to swim.  (Yes, I began the life of a tutor early!)  When I went to college, grad school, and even today, I swim regularly in pools and the ocean to stay in good physical and mental shape.  

 Lastly, and most importantly, life in the slow lane taught me that I would not be “the best” at everything – and that was OKAY! As an honors student who would graduate valedictorian of a 700-person class, I’d grown accustomed to classroom success from a young age.  While accolades from teachers were gratifying, I didn’t enjoy the responses from other students that often accompanied that spotlight.  Life in the slow lane let me do something I loved for the sake of doing it – not for my parents, not for my teachers, not for the grades.  “Failing” at swimming taught me to do something for the sheer joy of it!

Students practice analysis and writing at Bronx Community College

Students practice analysis and writing at Bronx Community College

Ask for Help

I have a confession to make.  I didn’t include the end of the community college student’s email to me, the one that ended, “the low grades are bringing down my confidence…. It keeps making me feel like I should drop the class.”  Her next paragraph continued, “But I won’t because I would rather learn more and since I personally dislike low grades, I would like some desperate help. I would really appreciate meeting before class tomorrow.”

I’m so proud that this student took me up on my invitation to let me tutor her during office hours!  So, dear readers, I’m off now to give this student some of the “desperate help” she asked for.  To the parent from last night, I’d thus add what this college student reminded me.  In addition to “modeling failure” for your child, teach him that it’s okay to ask for and receive help when he’s struggling. 


What Are YOUR “Grit-Building” Strategies?

How do YOU encourage YOUR child to persist through setbacks? Please share your thoughts in the comments below (to receive the latest issue of this blog delivered straight to your inbox each Thursday, click here).  

If YOU have a question that you would like answered and you’re unable to make it to a library talk or workshop,email me.  I’ll be sure to respond — and your concern might even make its way into future blog posts or my next Facebook Live on March 27 at 1:30pm.  (Day and time changed this month due to a prior commitment on the last Thursday at 7.)   It’ll be like having your own tutor in your living room! 

Until then, see you on Facebookand Instagram!

Wishing you loads of successes AND failures!

Dr. P.