When I was a teenager, I got my driver’s license somewhat late. The legal age to take the driver’s test was 16. While I managed to get my learner’s permit fairly early in the game, I was almost 18 before I was able to get behind the wheel without an adult in the passenger seat.
The reason for this is simple. I was terrified.
Now, I was not terrified for any of the sensible reasons. A car is a huge piece of machinery and driving means handing your life over to lots of other people who are also operating these huge pieces of machinery. Though I was sensible of the dangers inherent in driving, I was much, much more afraid of something else: failure. I took the driver’s test exactly once and I failed the parallel parking. After that, I was so afraid of failing again that, even though I could drive quite well, I just could not get up the gumption to take the test again.
A great deal of my early life was like this. Most things in my life have come fairly easily to me, which makes it very easy to not take risks and the possibility of failure absolutely terrifying. In fact it is only recently – only after getting married and becoming a parent – that I have begun to actually take risks that feel like risks. When I finished graduate school, I took a year and worked as a chaplain in a hospital in a CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) program. Then, when I was 20 weeks pregnant and we moved from Nashville to Memphis, I got a contract to write for the Church Health Center, and that was it. I had become a writer. But it has taken me another two years after that to come to the decision that led to this blog. I want to be a writer, and in order to do that, I need to, well, write. My husband likes to say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” It’s his way of cutting through the perfectionist junk that holds us all back from doing the things that we really want to do.
So now I am a parent, and I look at my kids and I can’t help but thing, “I hope they fail.” I don’t mean that I want them to be failures at life. I highly doubt that they will be. What I mean is I hope they learn early in their lives how to fail and not be frozen by that failure.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, writes often about the importance of measured risk in childhood. Children learn how to take risks, which means that they must learn how to fail. If, as a parent, I protect my kids from all failure, then they will simply never learn how to pick themselves up, dust off their knees, and keep on going. Worse, they will come to believe that they are not capable of picking themselves up.
I eventually did take my driver’s test again, though in the end, I think I failed it twice. (I am still not a great parallel parker.) There was a moment, though, when my mother took the opportunity to teach me a lesson that I have never forgot. I had failed the test for the second time. I was devastated and frustrated and terribly embarrassed. I announced to the world and my parents that I DIDN’T CARE and I was just NOT GOING TO DRIVE. EVER. I sat on the floor of our upstairs hallway, and my mom said, “You know how you’re feeling right now? That is how a lot of the kids you go to school with feel all the time.” I didn’t know at the moment how on earth anyone survived that. But I have never forgotten that feeling, and I have tried so hard to remember that failure does not necessarily mean death.
I am a parent, and my daughter is a rambunctious two years old. When she falls, my first instinct is to run to her side and scoop her up, make sure that she is okay. But the truth is, she can pick herself up. And when the stakes are much, much higher, I hope that she remembers that she can pick herself up.