The Final College Reminder: Failure Is Human (and Temporary)
Goodness, I feel like I’ve been writing get-your-kids-off-to-college pieces here forever. (In my defense, I’m pretty old and easily confused, so “a few years” and “forever” blend together for me if I haven’t had enough coffee.) There’s thinking about colleges and handling testing and touring schools and doing applications and handling responses and deciding where to go and dorm shopping and moving in and… well, it’s a lot. And I’ve written about most of it, I think.
Just a few weeks ago I wrote about giving your freshman a metaphor for resilience so they’ll be more likely to keep going through the tough times. I stand by what I said there; I do think there’s a lot of value in emphasizing that they can keep going and triumph even when things seem bleak.
But. There’s a flip side to all this encouragement, and the universe saw fit to serve me up a little lesson to drive the point home. There’s a fine line between “I believe in you” and “failure is not an option.” Whether you (I) mean to or not, too much “You’ve got this!” can start to sound like, “If you don’t have this, you’re defective.” There has to be balance between “It’s all good” and “It’s okay if it’s not all good.” You would think—after nearly 20 years of raising special-needs kids—that I would have this balance down pat, but you would be wrong.
Absolutely tell them you love them and they’ve got this and if they fall down they can and should get back up again and it’s all a journey and learning experience. But before they go, please also tell them the following:
1. I am always proud of you, no matter what. My kids have heard that one for years, and they often scoff when I say it. So I add disclaimers: Did you rob a bank? Kill someone? No? Then whatever dumbass thing you did doesn’t change the fact that I’m proud of you. They’re going to make mistakes. Some of those mistakes will be huge. They need to know you won’t just continue to love them, but also be proud of who they are, mistakes and all. “Did you do your best? Then I’m proud of you. If this wasn’t your best, but you’re learning from it, I’m still proud of you.” It matters to them a lot more than they let on, I promise you.
2. Failure is part of growing and learning, and so is admitting when you need help. One of my husband’s favorite expressions is “fail faster”—he teaches his students that failure is, in itself, a valuable learning tool, and so the goal shouldn’t be a cessation of failure, but embracing it and getting through it to the eventual solution. We’ve always taught the kids that failure is valuable. And I thought we’d been clear that failure needn’t occur in a vacuum, but it can be very, very difficult to admit you need help. Pro tip: a kid who has struggled in the past and been treated to the “you have to let someone know you’re drowning” speech may go ahead and drown again and do it twice as fast because they know they should say something and are also beating themselves up for not! Fun!! Heavy emphasis here on the “tell someone” thing, please.
3. Life doesn’t have a single path. Most freshmen end up changing majors. Many people start college in one place and transfer someplace else. Some people wait to go to college. Some people start and drop out and finish later; some never go back. Almost every adult I know is working in a different field than they started in years ago. There is no one guaranteed gold standard, and even if your kid is positive they know exactly what they want and how to get it, that may change. That same student may then believe that this is the end of the world, because the One True Path turns out to be wrong and now what? Let them know before this happens that course corrections can and will be necessary, and that is fine. There’s no one way. There is only the “right for right now” way. When that changes, you’ll pick another way. And—say it with me—no matter what happens? You will still be proud of them.
The world is telling them that sleep is for the weak and anxiety is “all in their head.” It’s up to us parents to tell them otherwise.
4. Life is not a race. Barring terminal disease, there’s no reason to rush. If your student defines success as graduating from college in exactly four years and then it turns out that they need an additional semester or year, help them redefine success rather than encouraging them to “fix it.” There’s a mindset of success-on-a-schedule in this country which can be detrimental. For some, the usual schedule works just fine. For others, that route can only be achieved at a steep price, and it’s not worth it. Slow and steady wins the race over sprinting, for many of us. You think your kid knows this, but the whole world is shouting at them that there’s only one way to do it and they’d better hurry up. Let them know they have plenty of time.
5. Nothing is more important than health. Sure, everyone says that all the time. Here’s a little secret I’m not sure you know: college students aren’t exactly known for their healthy habits. We joke about them eating nothing but pizza and staying up all night, and sure, they’re going to do some of that, and chances are it won’t kill them because they are young and healthy and resilient. But when you take a population of people who may not be very good at self-care to begin with and subject them to a whole bunch of changes and stressors, they may forget even the basics. And the world will try to convince them that school is more important than they are, and/or that achievement is more important than anything else. I’m not just talking about them getting every strain of Dorm Crud, either—depression and anxiety are real health issues. Their health comes first, period. Absolutely nothing is worth putting themselves into a real health crisis. Nothing. Please tell your kids that you would rather they get a lower grade and be healthy than that they make high honors at the expense of their wellbeing. Again, you probably think they know this, but it’s worth spelling out. The world is telling them that sleep is for the weak and anxiety is “all in their head.” It’s up to us parents to tell them otherwise.
If your child is leaving for college in the near future, please accept my best wishes for a happy, healthy, successful year for them (and you). Help them bring in their bags, make up the bed (if they’ll let you), and demand that they give you a big hug (no matter how embarrassing) before you leave. And then look them in the eye and remind them that no matter what happens, you will get through it together as a family and it will be okay.