I Will Continue To Praise Your Failure

How You Play The Game?

Oh how we love to tell our children that "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." Last year I wrote a post on the limitations of Mr. Grantland's dictum, although Mr. Grantland is not at fault for the non-Victorian foibles of succeeding non-Victorian generations. That post focused not so much on playing the game "the right way", but instead on playing with and behaving toward others with honor. The loss of a general concept of honor has meant that for us, "it's how you play the game" has degenerated into "be a good loser" and "shake hands".

Although that post called for a more general ethic to be employed, the call was for that general ethic to be brought into play in a very specific arena in which it is lacking. Today, for funsies, I write to endorse the "it's how you play the game" ethic, but instead of limiting it to sport specifically, I will propose it as a salutary window into learning how to teach kids stuff. All stuff.

So, then, I entitle this post either "It's How You Play the Game" or, better yet, "I Will Continue To Praise Your Failure".

Cutting The Mustard

When fathers are teaching skills to their children, it is necessary that they have the long view in mind, and teach accordingly. I have said elsewhere that I am effusive in my praise of good performance on the part of kids placed under my authority, but that I also tell them in no uncertain terms when what they're doing is just not cutting the mustard.

That being said, fathers should know what doesn't cut the mustard. Doing things badly never cuts the mustard. Laziness, half-assery, anger, impatience...these do not cut the mustard. Failure, on the other hand, ought to bother no one. There is nothing wrong with failing; in fact, sometimes it's better to build in a little failure as you're teaching, not as some sort of sadistic "make 'em tough" sort of thing, but because teaching things the right way will often involve more failure than teaching things the easy way.

Like your favorite Southern Baptist preacher on a fall Sunday morning, this is the part of the post where I move to a sports example. It's like when Alabama was facing a fourth-and-goal...

Actually, it's like teaching a five-year-old kid to shoot a basketball. From the girl who insists on shooting the ball like a Rick Barry underhanded free throw to the boy who cocks the ball behind his ear like a football to the kid whose form looks pretty good but uses too much arm. Those kids have been shooting the basketball their way for a while, and they're okay at it. The grown-ups can all tell how awful and limiting some of those styles are, but all the kids see is that when you ask them to shoot it properly, they can't even get the ball to the rim.

One girl I coached took weeks to start hitting the rim the way I showed her how to shoot. And then a couple more weeks to start making shots regularly. But by the end of the season she was doing just that, and in situations where she wouldn't even have been able to get her old shot off.

The way to do that is to praise failure. Praise doing it the right way. Which I did every practice.

Trust & Grace: Make a Promise

Teach the right way, but don't do it saying "because I said so." "Why should I hold the hammer this way, dad?" "Because I said so." That kind of response comes from frustration, and won't give the kid the faith to believe what you're telling him.

The kid needs faith in what you're telling him, which means he needs two things. First, he needs to trust you. If your "because I said so"s could be substituted for "have I not been trustworthy so far?", you're good. If they could be substituted for "just shut up and do what you're told", it will be harder to build trust. After trust, the kid needs a promise. "I promise that if you do things my way (body, soul, mind, whole-ass) it will be better. And here's how." "I promise the models will be sturdier if you build them this way." "I promise that your shot will be more accurate." "I promise that you'll do better on your next quizzes." Deliver on your promises. Build trust. Promise more. That is how to teach.

In the gap between the promise and the performance is the place to praise. Once your kid can shoot from all over the court, you should be closing the tap on the praise. It's when your kid is still struggling, but on the right path, that you must be generous. I will continue to praise your failure, my child. Just keep doing things the right way.


  1. The p.e. teacher at Infinity's school taught her to shoot the ball Rick Barry style. I corrected, and continue to correct, that teaching. Infinity loves the praise I give her for shooting correctly, even though she almost always misses. Thanks for this post. I may email it to her idiot p.e. teacher.


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