When We Fail to Learn

What if one of the best responses we can have in raising our kids to maturity is to let them fail? To let them face what they fear (perhaps even requiring them to do so)? What if, in all of the resourcing, all of the best intentions, all of the assurances that we’ve got it handled for them, we are not only restricting their growth but perhaps even aligning ourselves with the voices in their heads that tell them they are not capable of handling whatever comes next?

Don’t get me wrong. I could line a bookcase with my own parenting failures. This past weekend when my daughter, who is now a freshman in college, and I had a chance to catch up during her fall break, we talked about some of those places when I should have stepped in more. Afraid of becoming the helicopter parent whom I had often encountered on the other side of the desk, I watched and waited, intervening only when I felt it was absolutely necessary. But there are days I would redo, especially during her 5th grade and middle school years. Days when I wish I had provided greater support in navigating social pressures she was experiencing. Days I wish I had said more, given her permission to draw stronger boundaries, and expected her to “respond like Jesus” a little less.

So it is not without compassion for the struggles parents face that I share my concerns as an educator. I have worked with young people in some capacity—either in the classroom or in the church—since 1995, and I find myself increasingly at a loss. Private or public, secular or Christian, student or teacher—the pressure is unreal. For all involved. But I must confess, I am increasingly troubled by this present and real pressure: to ease distress by taking away the unknowns and reducing the possibility of failure.

Is it perhaps possible that discomfort, and even failure, creates resiliency, and that in our best, yet sorely informed, intentions, we are robbing the next generation of the potential to be strong, fierce and tenacious?

Maybe the body of literature I read is too narrow, and my experiences too limited, but there seems to be a distinct crisis at hand indicated by these markers:

GPA’s and anxiety are both on the rise—

“In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.” 1

“How rare is the C in college? The data indicate that not only is C an endangered species but that B, once the most popular grade at universities and colleges, has been supplanted by the former symbol of perfection, the A. For example, at Duke, which all evidence indicates is not a "leader" in grade inflation -- by a long shot -- C's now make up less than 10 percent of all grades. In 1969 the C was a respectable thing, given more than one-quarter of the time.” 2

"Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen. In 1998, it was 38.9%. By last year, it had grown to 47%. That’s right: Nearly half of America’s Class of 2016 are A students. Meanwhile, their average SAT score fell from 1,026 to 1,002 on a 1,600-point scale — suggesting that those A's on report cards might be fool's gold." 3

Educational opportunity (or privilege) does not alleviate anxiety--

“Teenagers raised in more affluent communities might seemingly have less to feel anxious about. But Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. ‘These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,’ she says, but there’s ‘contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.’ For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they ‘never get to the point where they can say, “I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,” ’ Luthar says. ‘There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.’” 1

Access to smartphones (and increased media) may not be the smartest answer when it comes to reducing student anxiety--

“Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who researches adolescent mental health and psychological differences among generations, used to be skeptical of those who sounded an alarm about teenage internet use . . . She searched for other possible explanations, including economic ones. . . The more she looked for explanations, the more she kept returning to two seemingly unrelated trend lines — depression in teenagers and smartphone adoption. (There is significantly more data about depression than anxiety.) Since 2011, the trend lines increased at essentially the same rate.” 1

Reducing risk of failure has an opposite effect on a student’s ability to both overcome anxiety and create success--

“But in order to retrain the brain, in order to create that message that says that even though I’m uncomfortable I can do this, we need to stop treating these anxious kids like they’re so frail, like they can’t handle things . . . ‘Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs,’ . . . Among many teachers and administrators I spoke to, one word — ‘resiliency’ — kept coming up. More and more students struggle to recover from minor setbacks and aren’t ‘equipped to problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively,’ a school counselor in suburban Oregon told me.” 1

Label any new trend what you will, but the crisis in education today doesn’t seem to be related as much to the academic information students are learning, or the way in which they are learning it, as much as in who they are becoming. That is not a problem solved with raised GPA’s, college consultants, or political manifestos.

I am guessing the stakes for college admissions will continue to rise, as will college debt and perhaps the need for further education to secure solid employment in one’s field. But the research seems to indicate that the more we try to navigate our children around the uncomfortable, even distressing, places in life, the less equipped, and less ready, they will be to handle life.

1. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html

2. http://www.gradeinflation.com/wapojan2003oped.pdf

3. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/07/17/easy-a-nearly-half-hs-seniors-graduate-average/485787001/


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