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Learning to Succeed

My youngest son decided to grow a garden this year. He arrived at this decision while watching me turn soil for my garden, and then sow a bunch of kale, which is about the only thing hardy enough for me to put in the ground with the weather as cold as it’s been so far this spring.

He didn’t exactly tell anyone of his intentions. I only discovered what he was up to when I was putting away my tools and found that he’d dug holes all through the little patch of backyard lawn that comprises all the grass I still allow on my property. When I asked what he was planting, he told me that he’d got a tomato out of the refrigerator, squished it, and picked out the seeds. He’d then dug a hole for each seed, maybe eight inches deep. All of which was impressive in its initiative and problem solving.

He was very proud of his handywork, so I tried to break it to him as gently as I could that fresh tomato seeds probably won’t germinate without fermentation, and that eight inches was way too deep to plant them, and that the weather was still too cold to plant tomatoes at all, and that our growing season is too short anyway, so that we should have started seedlings indoors a month or so ago if we really wanted them to get big enough to fruit. Not to mention that the spot he’d chosen was underneath a walnut tree, so the ground would be full of juglone, a chemical that kills many plants, including tomatoes. Also not to mention that the backyard sees a lot of foot, bike, and soccer ball traffic, which would almost guarantee the rapid destruction of any seedlings that did manage to show themselves.

Like I said, I tried to be gentle, but it was disappointing stuff for an eight-year old. It was only reluctantly that he chose a new patch of dirt (still beneath the walnut tree, unfortunately), and planted some mixed wildflower seed (which was all I had on hand), some of which (I have no idea how much) might actually grow there. I showed him how to turn the soil, add the compost, rake the furrows, scatter the seed, and turn it in. We watered his little patch (hardly necessary with rain actually spitting on us as we worked), but he insisted. And he’s been looking for shoots every day since.

The whole process reminded me of how much success and failure (especially for children, but also for adults), is determined by factors that are beyond our knowledge, and so how important it is to share that knowledge with our kids. If left to his own devices, my kid could have planted his seeds there and not had a single shoot come up, could have ended up frustrated and angry, could have decided never to garden again. He would never have known why he failed, never have learned how to succeed.

In those kinds of situations (whether as children or adults), what we need is people who have the knowledge and experience to come alongside and teach us how to succeed. My kid needed to know that, despite what he was taught in school, plants require more than just dirt, and water, and sun. He needed to know that the kind of soil matters, and the amount of sun, and the kind of plants that grow nearby, and the depth of the plantings, and the time of year, and the drainage, and so forth. His ability to succeed was dependent on that knowledge.

The same is true of so many situations. The reason that many kids can’t do simple things like wash laundry or cook lunch or change a flat tire on their bike is not lack of ability. It’s lack of knowledge. They try something, fail, and are afraid to try again, because nobody takes the time to explain how these things are done, nobody gives them the knowledge they need to succeed.

Why? Because it takes time and energy to provide that knowledge. It would have been far easier for me just to let my kid putter on his own. Just like it’s far faster, more efficient, and less messy for me just to do all the cooking myself, run the laundry through on my own, or do the renovations without their ‘help’. But the cost is that they never acquire the knowledge they need to succeed, and them they fail when they do try things, and then they become afraid to try again, and then they end up anxious about their ability to cope with the world.

So, even though it might take more time and energy, even though it might mean more mess and delay, remember that passing on the knowledge of those basic life skills is an important part of your role as a parent. Show your kids how to pump gas, how to light a barbecue, how to sew on a button, how to set up a router, how to write a polite email, how to chop an onion, how to unplug a toilet, how to hang a picture. These might seem like little things, but by them about these little things you’re also teaching them success, teaching them confidence, teaching them the knowledge they’ll need to negotiate their world.

Luke Hill has been the parent of birth kids, adoptive kids, foster kids, and just-need-a-place-to-stay kids for fourteen years. He’s had experience with kids in homeschool, public schools, and alternative schools. He’s been a teacher, a camp counsellor, and a coach. He’s also taught parenting courses for Children’s Aid for almost a decade. When he isn’t working with kids, he’s a writer, a publisher, and the director of a non-profit organization that supports book culture.