It was 4:00 P.M. on a typical Tuesday afternoon. My 5-year old Timmy and I were with other homeschooling families in a basketball court for their P.E. activity. We had the entire basketball court all to ourselves, which was great because our kids could run around and play freely while the adults catch up on each other’s weekends.
One of the things that we planned that afternoon was a game of relay to teach the kids the dynamics of group play, such as team work and communication. We divided the 10 kids into two groups--the older kids who wanted to stick together versus the group of younger and smaller homeschoolers where my Timmy took his place. The instructions were simple--race against the opponent to the other end, and then run back to tap the hand of the next person in line.
Timmy was next to the last person in their team. He was brimming with excitement because he loved to run. Off he went as soon as his teammate tapped his outstretched hand. He ran as fast as his 4-year old legs could take him. I was on my feet, cheering him on as I always do when we’re at home. It was pretty loud that I probably drowned out the voices of the other parents who were cheering for Timmy, too.
I thought Timmy was fast, but he faced bigger kids with longer legs and bigger sprints. He and his team were no match for the competition. It did not take long before the other team were jumping in glee as their last teammate made it to the finish line.
Timmy slowly made his way towards me. He was not sure what happened or who won.
“Did I win, Mommy?” he asked.
“No, you didn’t,” I answered him gently. “But you won second place, yay!”
He asked me again who won, and I told him that it was the other team. “But you won second place!” I repeated.
At first, he was confused, but when he saw that I was beaming with pride, he broke into a smile, raised his arms, and shouted happily, “Yay!”
At his age, my son hasn’t really experienced failure in a competitive sense. But I noticed that he did not like it when he did not get a perfect score when we would do our homeschool activities. Whenever he would see one of his answers was wrong, he would take the activity I was checking and would try to change it so he could get a perfect score. I would firmly tell him that he could no longer change them.
I was always happy when he would get a test score of eight or nine correct answers out of 10 questions. But I eventually realized that when I praised his work, I was highlighting his mistakes. I would often tell him, “Look, Timmy! It’s okay! You only got one mistake! Great job!”
I changed the way I conveyed my praise after I read an article on focusing on the positives. I stopped saying, “You only got one mistake! That's good!” I praised him this way instead: “Wow! You got 9 correct answers!” After doing it consistently, it helped Timmy to accept that he can’t possibly be perfect all the time. When he commits mistakes, he would ask me, “It’s not bad, right?” I would reply, “Of course not, sweetheart! It’s not bad at all!”
As parents, we want Timmy to remember the joy of playing, not the dismay of losing. We try our best to emphasize the importance of hard work, practice, and obedience. With God’s help, we want him to view failures as learning blocks that he can build on.
From a home school perspective, my son knows that mistakes are okay. From a competitive sport perspective, he knows that losing is part of the game. It is my prayer that we will be able to reinforce this further as he grows up. Don’t get me wrong. Of course, we want him to win and succeed. But it is just as important that our son learn to accept things even if it doesn’t go his way. (There’s a caveat, though. This “okay with mistakes” thing is not synonymous to tolerating “wrong behavior” in our house. That is a whole different story.)
Guiding Timmy to handle failure taught me to focus more on the effort more than the outcome. Whether he lands a place or not, it is his journey that matters more.
Ivy San Diego-Guerrero is a homeschooling mom who moonlights as a copywriter and editor and works on worthwhile advocacies such as Lupus (she's a Lupus warrior herself). She chronicles her family’s homeschooling journey on thevinethatwrites.com.