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The Benefits of Adversity and Failure

As I’ve been thinking through my educational goals for 2012, I find myself reflecting on my days as an athlete. I’ve been on several teams that were undefeated in conference play, and I was always perplexed when my coach would schedule games against superior teams that were not in our conference.

“But you are endangering our perfect record,” I’d complain. He always responded, “You don’t learn anything from playing teams that are weaker than you. You always learn more when you lose than when you win. Your weaknesses are exposed and then you can get better.” He’d conclude, “I’m much less interested in having a perfect record than I am in winning the championship. To do that, we have to know where our weaknesses are.”

To a culture that teaches that preserving a child’s self-esteem is paramount, intentionally creating opportunities for failure seems counter-intuitive. But it worked. One of two things always happened when we played teams much better than we. When we got beat, we discovered our vulnerabilities and could work to improve them, which we did. And other times (far more times than I would have thought) we played better than we knew we could. We dug deep and responded to the challenge, shocking both the other team and ourselves.

The same principle applies to education, and especially to homeschooling. One of the great strengths of homeschooling is the recognition that in education one size does not fit all. We learn who our children are and what their learning styles are and we teach them the way they learn.

But this benefit of homeschooling, if not balanced, can become its greatest flaw. If we exclusively cater to our children’s strengths, they will never learn to overcome their weaknesses. John Stuart Mill once said, “A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.”

The ancients, as David Hicks points out, understood that adversity is a virtue. Completely rejecting this idea, moderns avoid adversity at all costs. Success, they say, breeds success. But this isn’t always true. Parents everywhere know that the only way for a child to learn to walk is to first fall—many times.

As teachers and parents, we should be mindful of the Scriptural admonition not to discourage or frustrate our children. It’s good to know what are children’s abilities are. At the same time, a steady diet of age-appropriate assignments and learning-style specific tasks will ensure that your child never exceeds expectations—yours or his.

As a team we knew we didn’t stand a chance to win some of those games, but when we tapped into some unknown source of strength and ability, when we played beyond ourselves, those were the games that made us a championship team.

Mindful of that lesson, I’ve been giving my students more and more assignments that are a little out of their league. Sometimes they fail and we both learn what areas we need to work on. But sometimes, many times, they rise to the challenge and shock me—and themselves. Those are the moments when they grow and mature by great leaps; suddenly realizing that they are much more capable than they imagined.

We all want our children to succeed. But sometimes success comes from failure, and the greatest success always comes from overcoming adversity.

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