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How to Raise a Loser

I know someone who knows someone who won’t let his kids pull a wishbone apart, because it means that one of them would have to be the loser, and this devoted dad is intent on saving all his four children from suffering such a tragedy.

I know someone who knows someone who won’t let his kids pull a wishbone apart, because it means that one of them would have to be the loser, and this devoted dad is intent on saving all his four children from suffering such a tragedy. Gee, what a great father — if he has his way, his son and daughters will always come out on top in every situation, even if it’s actually inconsequential!


The only problem with that is, of course, he won’t have his way.

His children, like my children, like your children, will have to deal with setbacks and disappointments, failures and falling down. That’s just the way life is out here on the prairie — I don’t think there’s any question about that.

The only question is how well-equipped they’ll be to deal with those setbacks. I’m sure it’ll come more easily to some kids than others, but doesn’t it seem like kids would have a better shot at bouncing back if they had some familiarity with the process? The more you do something (including failure) the easier it gets. So I think the trick in life is not to avoid all the setbacks, it’s to keep going in spite of them. And I have to say, I worry about a kid whose own father has let her know he doesn’t have faith in her ability to deal with a setback as trivial as getting the short end of a chicken bone.

Besides, when did losing — trivial or otherwise — get such a bad name? History is full of big-time losers whom we revere. Abraham Lincoln, who lost eight elections before becoming President of the United States. Albert Einstein, who flunked seventh grade math before becoming a visionary physicist. Henry Ford, who failed -- twice -- at manufacturing before forming Ford Motor Company in 1903 at the ripe old age (for his times) of 40.

Where was Lincoln’s dad in all of that? Why didn’t he forbid Abe from entering those dog-eat-dog contests in the first place? He must have known it would be emotionally risky, to say the least. And what about Einstein’s mom? Why didn’t she march into the school and demand that the math teacher change his grade? Derelict! And then there’s the father of Henry Ford, about whom we can only wonder: why didn’t he buy up all the widgets his son was manufacturing so that young Henry could succeed and wouldn’t have had to resort to making automobiles and in the meantime re-inventing the entire manufacturing process for the benefit of businesses and consumers around the world?

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Perhaps these parents didn’t have to be told that failing, losing, coming in second, are not only inevitable in life but are also a necessary part of one’s growth and development as a person. Maybe they didn’t have to be told that experimentation, which by definition includes failure, is the very fountainhead of invention and success.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not planning to go out setting booby traps for my own kids just to make sure they suffer their share of defeats. But I believe that without some familiarity with failure, without some learned perserverance, my children would be so thin-skinned they wouldn’t survive in the real world. They’d buckle under the slightest pressure. Not only that, they’d drive the rest of us right up the wall with their infantile behavior, because it would be so upsetting for them when they did encounter disappointments. And I don’t want my children, once they’ve grow up, to be the kind of people who stand in line at the airline counter yelling at the ticket agent for the unforeseen delay, absolutely up in arms because they have no flexibility — no ability to adapt to an unfortunate change in circumstances and move on.

I know it hurts to see your little kid get last place in something. I know how painful it is to watch someone else hurt their feelings. And I know the parental agony of seeing them fail at an endeavor they’ve really put their hearts into. But I’m always amazed at the seemingly-inborn resilience of my own two kids, Belle and Joe. From what I can tell, they bounce back from things much more quickly than I do. They don’t lie awake in bed at night, stewing over the injustice of it all. And it leads me to conclude that maybe the failures of children sometimes hurt us parents more than they hurt the child themselves, and that maybe we should have faith in them — and let them know we have faith in them — to roll with the punches.

Besides, pulling a wishbone apart is fun. Win or lose.

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