I squealed with such delight recently when I read a Daily Mail article regarding a recent open day at the very prestigious girls school,Wimbledon High School for Girls .
Given its reputation for academic excellence, recent visitors to the school might have been forgiven for feeling a tad baffled by the display awaiting them in the school hall. 'WHS: BUILT ON FAILURE!' proclaimed a sign attached to a wall. Beneath it were pinned dozens of hand-written pledge cards where pupils and staff listed their shortcomings. There were failed maths tests and music exams, spoilt friendships and sporting fixtures lost. 'I failed at getting into regional netball academy', read one 'brick' in the school's 'wall of failure'.
A Wall of failure how amazing is that!
As a young child and a great runner I felt the immense pressure of always coming first. Of always winning and of always having to be the best. So much so that the first time I ever failed (i.e. lost a race) I gave up. Failure was never an option for me so much so that when I was beaten , I gave up all sports, all competitive sports and all competitions after that. I spent most of my teen years only participating in things I knew I was good at, which really amounted to causing trouble and winning over reluctant boys, which is nothing to be proud of. In fact, still as an adult I often feel that crushing pain when asked to do something at the front of a room.
When I had my two daughters I knew I didn't want them to grow up with the crippling fear of getting things wrong, which I felt growing up. So from a very early age, while sat around the dinner table I asked them one simple question, "How did you fail today? " I know it sounds like a strange question doesn't it, asking your children to tell you how they failed. But it was never a negative; we talked through the failures, talked about what they had learned and how that failure could become a win. I also always talked about my disappointments and failures with them too, to encourage failure to be the norm in my house.
When we look at anyone's life, aren't everyone's successes a string of failures that eventually end up in a win?
I think that celebrating failure is becoming more and more important, with the pressure on young girls to be and look perfect and worrying reports from young minds recently suggesting that three children in every classroom are diagnosed with a mental illness, it feels more important the ever that we don't make perfect the ideal.
I acknowledge the teacher at Wimbledon who says, "We need to teach our girls that some things will fall apart" Wimbledon High head Jane Lennon organised the 'fail better' week in a bid to help her girls understand that happiness does not come from getting everything right all the time. "We need to help them learn how to deal with academic setbacks and how to handle friendships when they fail, and to reassure them that it is OK to fail", she says.
Talking about failure encourages our girls to create more healthy growth mindsets, which means they are less likely to judge themselves on just their accomplishments and looks and are more likely to believe that hard work will get them what they want.
I recently wrote about growth mindsets for the Guardian and it is I believe an area where we as parents can have a huge influence on our daughters, particularly when it comes to engaging failure.
And it's tough I know in a competitive world where results and the exclusive A grade make the difference between a good university place and a great university place, it is tricky to let our daughters know it is also OK to fail.
I think every parents struggles with this delicate balance. For me as a parent and a confidence coach for girls it is about working with girls to set their own expectations, expectations they want to meet and creating a supportive environment around them to help that happen, while at the same time giving as much credit to the failure as we do the wins.
In year 9 my eldest failed a Maths exam in huge way that would have an impact on her future grade. I could see the failure coming, warned of it but ultimately left her to figure it out herself. When the inevitable failure came, I didn't say I told you so or panic about her future, we just looked at what she had learnt and how this failure was a win for her. From that moment on she learnt that she needed to study hard to get the results she wanted, she knew that her lapse of judgement there would most likely have an impact on the university she would go to later. But at 19 now she has ended up at the perfect university for her, studying the perfect subject and has just released her first novel.
Some might say I backed off too much, some might say I should have made sure she studied to get the grade. Some would have given everything to help their daughter get that grade. And while this all did cross my mind, there was one big thing I wasn't willing to give up for my daughter to achieve perfect action, and that was her mental health.
My daughter's mental health and the mental health of every girl I work with are far more important that any illusion of perfection, however rational and sensible it may seem.