In 2009, Tiger Woods was on top of the sports world. His major tournament wins continued to stack up, record-setting lucrative sports endorsements added up, and his seemingly happy marriage with two children completed the perfect picture of success. There was no failing whatsoever in his world; it simply was not an option. And then Thanksgiving of that same year, Tiger Woods’ world came crashing down in a spectacular (and very public) fashion.
His marriage failed after serious adultery allegations, he entered rehab for an admitted sex addiction, and his golf career? Well, for several years following that nightmare another one started – his painful back condition kept him from competing entirely. Adding insult to injury, he ended up with a pain pill addiction post back surgery, and was ultimately arrested for DUI.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when on a late Sunday afternoon, Tiger was approaching the 18th green and about to win his first major golf tournament in years. Were people booing him – remembering his character and personal failings from years ago? Not in the least. Instead, thousands on the course cheered madly for their beloved Tiger Woods.
How is that possible, even after all of his embarrassingly public failures?
It’s possible because…..PEOPLE LOVE A REDEMPTION STORY.
People love the “comeback kid,” the “down and out guy,” and any variety of defeated persons whom we’ve seen fail epically, then manage to dust off their boot straps and take on life again. Everyone, everyone should get this chance in life, and they should get it over and over and over again. Everyone, that is, except our teenagers, right?
At least that is how parents, teachers, counselors, college admission officers, coaches, and anyone else who spends time with adolescents have led all of us to believe. We have all bought the great lie that there is not only zero room for today’s teenager to fail academically (and socially for that matter), but any form of failure is a great embarrassment to everyone involved. And I do mean everyone.
Ever notice how quick parents are to share college acceptance letters, scholarships, SAT scores, and pretty much all the gleaming and unblemished resumes of their high schoolers for everyone to see on social media? Sure it makes moms and dads exuberantly proud, but it also validates their parenting to a certain extent, as it also does for the village that presumably contributed to the raising of this superhuman teen. We all want to take credit for our teenager’s great accomplishments, and while that is all well and good, it also means that when failure happens, we scatter like sheep when a wolf arrives, because failure on their part means failure on our part.
Nobody is sharing a picture of their sophomore’s F in pre-calc with the caption, “We came. We failed. We learned from it. And next year we are gonna rock it!” How great would a post like that be for both the parent and their teenager? How awesome would it be for our teens to learn that failing is a necessary evil that often teaches lessons no “A” ever could, and that there is room to laugh at, learn from, and move on from all kinds of failure? The glaring irony in all of this is the fact our fear of failure has ended up making our teenagers fear failure, the consequences of which can be fatal.
Adolescent brains do not have the bandwidth to process that failure is temporary, and that high school is but a small blip on their life map. Unfortunately, while we may talk that talk, our actions do not support it. Anyone who has been through the competitive college application and scholarship process knows this all too well, because there is no room for any form of failure – not the expectation of failure, the acceptance of failure, or the explanation of said failure on that path and therein lies the problem. Just ask the Valoras family.
Alexandra Valoras was a bright, articulate, straight A engineering student who leapt to her death off a bridge in March of this year. Since her suicide, her parents Dean and Alysia, have bravely spoken openly about the hidden struggles their daughter had that they never knew about. Alexandra left detailed journals of her insecurities and self-loathing, and the brave face she thought she always had to keep on, but one of the most striking entries she wrote in her journal simply said, “You are a failure.”
Because teen suicide among females Alexandra’s age is at an all time high, her parents are making it their mission to speak publicly about their trauma, in the hopes somehow they can prevent another family from enduring the same suffering.
Our teenagers need not continue to battle the perfectionist demons, and as parents and educators, we need not allow it, or encourage it anymore. Tell your kids that failure doesn’t define them. Tell them it’s normal, natural, and expected. Tell them failure creates comeback stories, chances for redemption, and the opportunity to rise even higher and better than before.
And finally, tell them you don’t worry that they will fail, you worry that they won’t.