I have great respect for Alfie Kohn, but I disagree with what he recently wrote as a guest blogger (“Do kids really learn from failure? Why conventional wisdom may be wrong,” The Answer Sheet, Oct. 4). If I read him correctly, he believes that nothing good comes from failing. “But are we entitled to conclude ... that failure is beneficial, or that parents and teachers should deliberately stand back rather than help out?” The answer to the first question is yes, while the answer to the second question is no.
There’s a distinct difference between disengagement on the part of parents and teachers, and letting young people learn naturally from their mistakes. Trying to shield them from the consequences of all their actions does them a terrible disservice. It’s how we allow the process to play out that is crucial. When young people know that they are loved and respected even - or particularly - when they don’t succeed, they become more resilient because they know that falling short is part of life. They don’t see themselves as any less worthy.
I think Kohn overemphasizes the fragility of children. Of course, some are more sensitive than others, but that doesn’t mean they will be devastated by their failures. In fact, their sensitive nature tends to make them more introspective. They learn that they are stronger than they gave themselves credit for before the experience. Moreover, young people know when they have truly earned something. Indiscriminate praise rings hollow in their ears. I’m not advocating withholding praise out of concern that it will spoil them. On the contrary, when a job is well done, praise is highly productive. But today, the emphasis on self-esteem has cheapened praise. That’s not good for them now, and it certainly is not good for them in the years ahead.
If anything, learning how to handle failure is more indispensable than ever. That’s because this generation has it much harder than mine did. Getting into college and paying for it, earning a well paying job in line with their education, and retiring with dignity are challenges my generation never faced. Unless they hit the lottery or inherit a fortune, most will never be able to retire at all. Yet they soldier on. I take my hat off to them.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.