Monday, February 19, 2007

The merits of failure

Back when I was a kid, skipping grades was thought to be the ticket for the most concerned parents to achieve academic excellence. When we moved here from England I skipped a grade. My brother had a September birthday, and skipped two grades. My husband had a September birthday and stayed on grade level. He started taking college classes in high school.

Because I was born in November I was a ten year-old in a classroom of twelve year-olds. Due to the age gap, making friends was very hard for me. I think I missed out on a lot socially, because of that age difference. Academically yes I did well on paper. I went to a small private college. I got an MBA from UC Berkeley. But it took me almost flunking out of college to realise how to resolve my academic issues like how to study and how to compensate for my disability.

Now I understand the new trend is to hold children back from attending Kindergarten. I certainly understand that some kids simply aren't ready for kindergarten. But many of these parents have children who are ready, but hold them back to give them a better advantage. I wonder if these kids like me will have a hard time in later grades fitting in, because of their age gap.

My husband and I both agree that we want our kids to make friends. I don't want my kids to be bored, but my husband says "Learning how to cope with being bored isn't a bad thing." My husband says "we can teach our kids anything they need to know." I'm not so sure about that but I don't want to push my kids the way my parents did. I don't want them to get the message that my grades were the be all and end of my school life. I don't think that's what my parents intended but that's the message I received.

Our daughter is entering Kindergarten in the fall. She has an April birthday. She already knows how to read and write. Neither my husband nor I speak Spanish fluently. We both speak French, but we're too rusty to really teach her, and besides Spanish is much more useful. So we thought about the Dual Immersion program at Castro in Mountain View. Spanish is one of the few things I can't really teach her.

We were a bit concerned that the parents might not be involved at all, or too pushy. Instead they seemed to have the right mixture. I want my daughter to do her best, because she enjoys school. I didn't do my best until midway through college. I hated school for years.

Nobody at Harvard cares what grades my kids get until high school. My kids will have from high school onwards to compete with their peers. I hear some schools go to the other extreme and have no competition at all. Winning or losing is not allowed.

But there's a balance there somewhere. I think that pressure to strive needs to come from within. Too much pushing results in a child who develops that late or who strives in the wrong ways. I read that cheating is rampant in Palo Alto schools. I think a large part of that comes from the idea that winning at any cost is good. That is not a lesson I want to impart to my kids.

Anyway at a certain point, I won't be around to push them anymore. Nor will I be around to tell the teacher their rules are stupid. Sometimes one just have to follow stupid rules. That's life. A lesson my children need to learn. Ever dealt with the INS? I would rather my children figure out these important life lessons in grade school as my husband did, than in college as I did. My parents and grandparents imparted a love of learning through their own actions - their love of travel books and science.

My son has a September birthday. He has multiple delays at the moment due to spending the first 18 months of his life on steroids and going in and out of the hospital. I'm not sure if he'll be ready for kindergarten or not. He's only two, so it's a long way away. However it will based on if he is academically and socially ready.

I do agree that the cutoff date for Mountain View (Dec 2) is rather late and I wish the US had a more standardized educational system. I quite understand a parent choosing to delay a child who was born later than September if they're thinking about moving or if they simply aren't ready. However, when I hear about perfectly typical kids born in August or even July delaying Kindergarten, IMO it gets a bit silly.

I wonder if these kids are being taught the same lesson my parents unconsciously taught me. Getting along with your peers isn't important. Getting good grades is all that matters. I rebelled against this message by not getting the best grades I could. My parents upped the pressure. Yes I did fine. But I think I would have done fine anyway without the pressure and pushing. My parents now tell me this. I believe them.

Of course I do care a lot about my children's future. But as I learned from my son who is one of the hardest working people I know. Success in life ironically comes from failing. My son almost failed to live.

I feel like as a culture we're afraid of failure. We're afraid to let our kids fail lest it scar them. Parents either avoid competition altogether or push their children to always succeed. Parents tell me if my child doesn't get into X preschool or Y school they will fail in some way. My parents failed me in a sense. They weren't perfect. But I turned out just fine.

One of the great things about the US is that you get loads of second chances. You can go back to school and/or change careers. The apocryphal story about Einstein is he had speech delays etc. I think what's more interesting is that he dropped out of secondary school and also failed the entrance exam to go to college. He went to Switzerland to attend another secondary school.