Grit and Failure

My 10th grader is currently learning to drive. Yesterday, he drove me from North Raleigh to RTP. He made all of the classic mistakes; approached turns with too much speed, rode the shoulder on the highway, and didn’t brake early enough when coming to a red light. I really think I’m amazingly calm during this process, but truthfully, I’m a mess when he is behind the wheel. He’s the one who is actually calm (maybe too calm given his newness to driving), but I’m going to attribute it to his ability to try and try again.  He’s definitely struggling as he is gaining new skills, but I’m really impressed with his determination. He’s not giving up.

It is tough to watch your kid struggle. I have a really hard time not stepping on the imaginary passenger-side brake pedal. I want to bail him out and tell him he can just take Uber everywhere and that self-driving cars will surely be so popular when he is in twenties.  But I’m secretly really proud of him, too. And, of course, in the back of my mind I’m thinking about how his ability to learn from his mistakes will help him in the college admissions process.

Admissions officers want to admit students who demonstrate perseverance and in order to successfully demonstrate that personal characteristic, students need to fail (just not behind the wheel preferably). So, as parents, we need to give them room to fail. And permission to fail. And not get so mad at them when they do fail. That’s not easy. It is in our parental DNA to swoop in and catch them before they make a mistake.

How do admissions offices measure grit and determination? Well, they ask about it.  One of the essay options on the Common Application asks students to describe a time when they faced a challenge, a failure, a setback. Students don’t have to choose that question to answer, but they should know that it is an option, and that the ability to overcome obstacles is important.  Furthermore, one of the most common interview questions during the admissions process is about making mistakes. If students haven’t struggled, they don’t have a lot to talk about.

So how can you foster a safe space in which it is ok for your student to make mistakes?

Here are some tips:

  • Model the behavior. If we, as parents, demonstrate that we make mistakes and that we acknowledge our mistakes and take ownership for them, then we can foster that behavior in our students. Maybe the next time you are eating dinner with your student, you share a small mistake you made that day. For example, yesterday, I didn’t proofread an email carefully and my typo caused some confusion. I shared that mistake with my family at dinner and told them how I fixed it and what I learned.

  • Set clear expectations. Hopefully, your students are taking courses that challenge them. Be clear that you don’t expect your student to earn perfect grades. Set the bar high, but leave some room for growth. And then, don’t be mad when they don’t earn all As all the time.  

  • Ask your students how they failed this week. Gently encourage them to talk about a small mistake and don’t overreact when they share something with you.

Our students aren’t naturally self-reflective. And I know getting them talk isn’t always easy. Most teens hate to admit when they are wrong. So don’t be surprised if this is hard. I’m sure if you talked to my 10th grader, he would tell you he is Mario Andretti already. But he does have grit. Now we just need to encourage him to slow down before taking that turn.