Falling and Failing

Kids need to fall. This is how they learn to tumble and roll without tightening up and then to get back up again. Falling is a skill. Gymnasts and stunt professionals know they will fall, so they take lessons in falling. And physical therapists teach senior citizens how to fall.

Kids who are taught to fear falling can become stiff and awkward in their movements. They don’t learn how to shift their bodies or protect themselves when they fall. This makes them even more unsafe. But kids who learn to fall with skill get hurt less.

Falling into an easy roll, though, goes against instinct. We fight the fall, trying to catch ourselves with an arm or knee or foot. But bones are hard and unforgiving, and when they take the impact they break.

According to physical therapists you should aim for the meat when you fall, not the bone. Round your body, they say, pulling your arms in across your chest and bend your knees. Spread the force of impact across your body. And, counterintuitively, relax as you fall.

Teachers, it seems, could learn from physical therapists. We spend our time teaching students not to fail. But we give them little help on how to fail, when we know they will. At some point in their lives they will fail a test or a class, not make the cut for a job interview, or find devastation in a relationship.

Some students feel failure so much that it warps their relationships, clouds their thinking, and hinders their emotional growth.

“I wish she would just get a B,” one desperate father said to me about his daughter. “She can’t sleep at night, won’t do anything fun on the week end, and worries, worries, worries.”

Granted, I had students who could have used a dose of this obsession. But, for some students, the fear of failure is debilitating.

What if we told these students to expect to fall, that failing is part of life? What if we helped them know how to spread the impact of a failure—to gather support systems around them? What if we were vulnerable enough to talk about our own failures and how we survived them and how we got back up again? What if we intentionally taught them to tuck and roll?

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