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To help youth succeed, allow them to fail

By Samantha Grant

Why do we shy away from letting young people try and fail?

When I first started my work at the University of Minnesota, 4-H was new to me. I can remember attending a day of judging at the local county fair. I sat in awe of this experience and was envious that I had never had it.

I remember in that county fair judging experience that one youth brought an arts and craft project that was less than stellar. Rather than hyping up the project, the judge got the boy to reflect on what went wrong. In the 10 minutes that they spent together, this young person was able to take constructive feedback, and I honestly think that he walked away knowing how to improve.

People will often tell you that judging is a place for youth to reflect on their learning with the support of a caring adult. True. What they won't tell you is it's a place where failure is okay.

What?! Failure is okay. That might seem like an odd thing to associate with learning, but I would argue that we have to do more in the way of helping youth cope with failure.

What does that have to do with youth development? A lot. According to Paul Tough the author of How Children Succeed. Grit, curiosity, and other character traits are important predictors of future success. Check out an interview with Paul Tough on Minnesota Public Radio. An underlying theme throughout his book is that youth need to have experiences in failing in order to grow and learn to succeed. If we are constantly letting youth explore only in "safe zones," we are stunting their ability to grow and build important resiliency skills.

Youth programs are great places to allow youth to fail and be supported. As Tough writes about a chess coach who was a prime example, "Her job was not to prevent them from failing; it was to teach them how to learn from each failure, how to stare at their failures with unblinking honesty, how to confront exactly why they had messed up." How cool would it be if youth learned all of that in their after-school programs?! I think it's a reasonable goal.

How can youth programs help youth to learn to cope with failure? Can youth programs help youth to develop grit and other important character traits? How can you as a youth worker help young people to learn when they fail?

-- Samantha Grant, evaluation director

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  1. Sam,
    Timely reminder for sure as the State Fair opens. One of my best expereinces as a youth worker (and most challenging to my heart) was entering a group of inner-city youth in a team academic competition call the Academic Triathalon. It was a risky decision and I spent a few weeks deeply questioning myself and how it might affect the youth. The first competition was held in a very wealthy suburb in the west metro and as I walked in with my team of 5-6th grade youth from the South side of Mpls, I still remember their eyes ping-ponging around at the elementary school media center, the swimming pool complex, and the lunchroon with family-like tables. It must have felt as different to them as watchng an episode of the Jetson's might have been to me at that age. They failed miserably in almost all of the events that day. But over sub sandwiches we talked through how they felt about it and what they wanted to do with three more events to complete for the year. They decided to come up with their own goals for themselves. They acknowledged that it was unlikely they would win. But they set big goals for what they could accomplish - they picked out their strengths and worked hard to score high in two categories where they had talent. Then they acknowledged to me that they learned a great deal beyond the questions in the competition - about differences in economics and how that related to their performace, about differences afforded in lifestyle and resources and about how inspite of that, they could stand as peers to these competitors in signficant ways.
    Yup - they failed that day in one way, but we saw it very differently the next time we went to compete and they attacked each event with some serious grit.

  2. Hi Deb,
    Thanks for sharing your stories. How brave of all of you to be willing to take risks. Wouldn't it be interesting to follow up with those youth today to see their take on the situation? I'm sure this was on of many instances were youth showed their grit.
    Do others of you have stories to share?

  3. I think it bears mentioning the role of a caring adult in helping youth to reframe failure. Parents, as much as anybody, need to understand the importance of failure, of not meeting your goal everytime out, of not getting a blue ribbon on every project. Real learning (mastery) not only comes from failure, but also self esteem (and independence) as we learn from our failures. Having that caring adult to help us see past the emotion of failure can make the process much easier.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Margo. Yes, I definitely agree that the role of the caring adult is key. You will see that in Deborah's story as well as in the judging example. Now we just have to prep adults to allow this to happen and help them to find the balance between giving youth the chance to fail with giving the needed support.


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