Let your child fail

Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.

It’s good to teach children the value of failure early.

To let them fail; to know that things do not always come so easy; to see them fall back down to earth and lick their wounds. I am glad my daughter had a taste of all of the above in the past two months.

She has always been a bright and self-motivated child who takes herself quite seriously. Since young, she has been a darling in the eyes of her teachers. She was always entrusted with responsibilities, and had no lack of opportunities to shine in school and outside of it. She was usually one of the recipients during the annual school awards presentation ceremony, until this year.

Even though her exam results were above average, they paled in comparison to those of her classmates. Maths is her Achilles heel. It has turned into a negative feedback loop: the admission of her own weakness in the subject has dented her enthusiasm for it, which led to further disinterest.

She confided in her mother about her disappointment. In the past, she was one of those who had to leave the classroom to attend the awards ceremony rehearsals. This year, half the class, comprising almost all her closest friends, were at the rehearsals, except her. That was when reality sank in. In one of her WhatsApp replies to a prize recipient’s query on what potential issues to look out for, she told him “in (my) four years of experience, hunger would be the most pressing concern since there would be a lot of waiting”. I knew that feeling: a tinge of jealousy mixed with envy. She must be hurting inside.

Incidentally, she had ballet to distract her. It is her love and passion and she is a very dedicated student. Months of gruelling practice had culminated in her debut participation in the Malaysia International Ballet Grand Prix, which was held in Kuala Lumpur at the end of November. Most of her senior dance mates failed at the first hurdle last year, but they have come back wiser and stronger this year. Being the most junior and inexperienced member in her group, my wife and I were not very optimistic about her chances. Of course, we kept our thoughts to ourselves. I might be a mean parent sometimes, but I am not a cruel one. However, we knew all along that she lacks strength. Though we encouraged her to practise yoga to strengthen her leg muscles, she did not heed our advice.

In the end, my daughter, along with one other dancer, did not make it to the finals while the rest of the team did. My daughter took the results in her stride. Later in the hotel bathroom, she could not control herself anymore and sobbed. She berated herself, questioning why she was “so lousy”.

No parent likes to see their child defeated. Her cries echoed in my heart, which broke in places where hers shattered.

My job as a parent is not to set her up for success. It is to prepare her for failure, so that she may rise, fall and rise again. Life is full of ups and downs. If I coddle my children all the time, I am setting them up for a hard landing when things go south in the future. It might sound clichéd, but I firmly believe every setback a child experiences is an opportunity to get back up.

What I could do was to encourage her. “You can try again next year. Continue to work hard, just like what your seniors did, and look where they are now.”

“You can be proud of your exam results too! You did it without any tuition, when almost all your classmates attend extra classes after school. You are free to pursue your passion in dancing, free to do anything you like and what is most important is having that enthusiasm for lifelong learning.” She bowed her head and listened quietly.

“If you are not happy with your results, you can aim to do better next year.” I never set performance targets for her, because I know she has this fire inside her and the series of disappointments had somehow ignited it. I am confident she will pick herself up and pirouette to new heights.

She has willingly signed up for a maths tuition class. Looks like it is going to be an interesting 2018!


KC Wong is a photographer and a father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.

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