Is Failure an Option?

Last night we had a Court of Honor for the Boy Scouts. For those who are unfamiliar with this, a Court of Honor is an opportunity for the scouts to be publicly recognized for their achievements, merit badges earned and rank advancements. This time ends, as all scout meetings do, with a Scoutmaster’s minute, a chance for the Scoutmaster to leave the boys with one last nugget of wisdom before the evening ends. As the Scoutmaster was speaking one phrase jumped out at me from all that he said, “It is more honorable to fail, than to cheat.”

This, of course, flies in the face of popular wisdom, after all, doesn’t society tell us to “get ahead at all cost” or “all that is important is winning” or “failure is not an option.” To fail is to show weakness. To fail is to show that there is something you can not do. Indeed, in today’s culture, failure is not an option.

Unfortunately, it is not just the culture around us. How many of us have unwittingly propagated this view with our own children. I was chatting with a mother at the library toward the end of summer and we were talking about our kids going back to school. As we talked she relayed a story of someone she knew who had attended a very highly regarded and well known High School in the Chicago northern suburbs. She said that one day she was talking to this friend about a school assignment that was due and was wondering if she was able to get it done. Her friends response was that her dad was up all night writing it.

In this case, there was nothing unwitting about it. Her father wanted to make sure the assignment got done and done right, to help ensure his daughter “succeeded.” We certainly wouldn’t do this, but how many Cub Scout or Awana dad’s have ended out designing and building their child’s Pinewood Derby or Grand Prix car for them rather than guiding them in building and designing their own car. How many of us have seen a bad grade on our child’s report card and the first thing through out minds, if not out of our mouths was , “that is unacceptable, your smarter than this.” How many of us, when our child has gotten in big trouble have responded with “you embarrass me and the whole family.” Each of these in their own way, from blatantly obvious to subtle innuendo, teaches our children that they must be perfect and that failure is not an option.

So if this is what we are teaching, how can it be true that it is more honorable to fail, than to cheat. After all, cheating is just a way of ensuring that we stay ahead of the game. Perhaps we as parents need to correct our understanding of our role, before we think about correcting this misperception in our children.

As parent’s we seem to think that there is no greater compliment than to have someone tell us how well behaved our children are or how smart they are. This of course feeds our ego that we are doing such a good job. Well, we want people to continue to think we are good parents so we do what we can to ensure that our children never get in trouble and that they do not fail. Unfortunately this can easily turn into situations were we are doing work for our children to ensure they succeed or covering up their mistakes so they do not get in trouble and no one sees our “failure” as parents. I heard it this was, we have come to see our role as parent to be raising perfect kids, but our real role should be to raise responsible adults. And as hard as it is to hear, and I assure you I don’t what to hear it either, becoming a responsible adult means failing, sometimes in a huge way, as a child (and even still some as adults). It is through failure that we learn to succeed. Henry Ford’s original automobile design did not have a reverse gear. Thomas Edison said about failure to develop the incandescent light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that wont work.” When we “help” our children and prevent them from failing, we are not helping at all, but doing an injustice. We are not teaching them that success is a result of hard work and you may fail along the way, rather we are teaching them to succeed at all cost and that failure is not an option.

So we come back to the idea that it is more honorable to fail, that to cheat. No wonder this seems such a foreign concept. Children have had ingrained in them the idea that as long as you succeed it does not matter how you got there. For them, and to many of us as adults, the ends justifies the means.

Now before I am criticized as promoting failure as a good thing, let me be clear that I am not saying that. there are two reasons for failure. The first is that you are just not putting the necessary work into it (lazy, distracted, apathetic, etc.). Failure for this reason is not honorable, but still something can be learned. A person can learn that they need to be more focused or more disciplined. The second is failure is that even though you tried your hardest you simply did not understand it or were not able to do it. Failure for this reason is honorable, because you worked hard. From this failure you learn that you may need to ask for help (something most of us do not do well), you may have areas you need to focus on more, or there may be things that simply are not within your realm of capabilities (this last one is a hard pill to swallow in a society that insist on you can be anything you want, and that everyone is a winner, but I digress.)

In Luke 16:10 Jesus teaches that “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.”You may think that a little thing here or there doesn’t matter, but those little “cheats” grow and can have profound impact down the road. We read in Proverbs 19:1 that it is “Better to be poor and honest than to be dishonest and a fool.” and in Provers 10:9 that “People with integrity walk safely, but those who follow crooked paths will slip and fall.”

Cheating may appear to produce the desired end result, but it is simply an appearance and as two dimensional as the images on the television screen. True success for real life requires hard work, integrity and occasional failure. We need to learn to regard failure not as a sign of weakness, but as an opportunity to learn. We need to learn that it truly is more honorable to fail, than to cheat.

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