Riding to my first community bike ride of the season, I rejoiced. The blue skies and perfect temperature surely meant plenty of families would show up. But as I waited at the community center with my young son, my hopes faded. A biker riding up the parking lot piqued my attention before I realized it was one of the other volunteers. Not a single family showed up to my family bike ride. Instead, my kid, my two fellow volunteers and I pedaled over to the ice cream shop anyway.
This isn’t exactly unusual. In my years of volunteering, I’ve planned a lot of events. For every one that’s a rollicking success, there are three more that involved a lot of work with little payoff. While I’m revising my marketing strategy, I’m also realizing how I handle these letdowns is about a lot more than organizing. It’s also about the type of role model I am for my kids.
Kids don’t often get to see adults fail with grace. When adults fail, it’s often catastrophic, such as a divorce or the loss of a job. As adults often hide struggles to kids, these failures may come as a complete surprise to the children. While we can demonstrate how to pick ourselves up in these severe circumstances, they’re (hopefully) rare. They’re also high-stakes, where there’s a tremendous amount of risk and loss. They’re not the ordinary type of failing that kids face every day, whether they receive a bad grade, are turned down for a date, or are picked last in gym class.
It’s up to us to set a good example for our kids of how to fail and develop “grit.” Some people are inherently perseverant, but others learn it from the people around them. And it’s not something that can be taught from a textbook. Kids see right through speeches or lecturing without real action to back it up. Talking openly about dealing with our set-backs helps kids see we’re not perfect and we don’t expect them to be either. What we expect is for them to recover and learn from their mistakes.
As my kids get older, I’ll share with them stories of failed chemistry tests, fundraisers that lost as much money as they made, and travel mishaps. While some of those stories are funny (a missed bus that involved a series of unfortunate events in Ireland), others are serious (joining a socially toxic group in college). We’ll also talk about more recent failures, whether the aforementioned bike ride or essays that have been rejected by magazines.
When appropriate, we’ll talk through what I did to fix the problem or avoid it in the future. In some cases, I worked up the bravery to quit something I put an immense amount of time into, like the college group. In others, I learned to ask for help, like the missed bus. And some – like chemistry and my writing – I just kept on trying until I got it right. While I could use celebrity examples of grit – like the fact that publishers rejected the Harry Potter series several times before Rowling was published – it’s more powerful to share my own.
In a few cases, there’s nothing I could do to change anything. But I kept on going anyway.
And sometimes, I’ll teach them you just need to go eat some ice cream.