I’m Not a Snowplow Parent — I Want My Kids to Fail

Oct 15, 2019

I remember one day when my daughter, who was in Grade 3 at the time, came home in tears. The cause wasn’t friend drama, bullies or scraped knees.

No, no. She had received a 9 out of 10 on her latest spelling test.

I didn’t understand what was happening. I couldn’t make out her words in the midst of her snuffles and sobs. Gradually, I pieced it together. She had only ever received a perfect mark on spelling tests and was having a super hard time with this “failure.” After trying to point out that this was still a very good mark, and appealing to first logic (nope) and then her history of excellent marks (not interested), I changed my approach.

Another Mom's Perspective on a Similar Theme: I Want My Kids to Feel Sad

Happy With Failure

“Well, I’m actually very happy that you got a question wrong,” I declared. That got her attention. The sniffling slowed, and she looked up with curiosity. “I’m not being silly, or sarcastic or rubbing it in — I really mean it. This test has taught you so much more than how to spell. This test, and the mark you received, has begun to teach you how to make a mistake. And, more importantly, how to get over it.”

I love the fact that we are trying to move away from the crippling nature of perfectionism.

We didn’t discuss it much more that day. I didn’t want to lecture her, or pontificate on my theme. But I planted a seed that I revisited with her a few days later. We considered how it is impossible to go through life without making mistakes and discussed the learning opportunities we have by erring in the first place. We also talked about why it happened. We talked about the many, many mistakes I have made and continued to make (fun). We pondered how we felt about other people when they made mistakes, and uncovered the fact that we are generally much, much harder on ourselves than on others.

Practice Makes… Well, Very Good

I spoke with my daughter’s teacher not long after the spelling test incident. She confirmed that my daughter did have a problem with not being perfect. She was upset with mistakes, and hurt by criticism. The teacher recommended we read The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes. It’s a great children’s book that delves into the important business of making mistakes. My daughter also revealed that one of her teacher’s favourite expressions was “Practice makes… well, very good.”

I love this. I love the fact that we are trying to move away from the crippling nature of perfectionism. Because I see it everywhere. When I was in high school, an 80 was a pretty decent mark. A 90 was something to be proud of. But these days I’m hearing from high school students that my hard-fought victory of a 90 is something fairly laughable. Anything less than a 95 is unacceptable. And kids are willing to negotiate with teachers for a mark bump, can receive 105 per cent on a test, and generally get a do-over on any assignment or test with less than fantastic grades.

It all speaks to the growing tendency of high schools to inflate marks, especially to help students get into the post-secondary institution and program of their choice. It’s become such a trend that universities often have a rating system for how much certain high schools inflate marks.

Snowplow Parenting and Missing the Train

There’s already been a lot written and discussed about “snowplow” parenting, in which all obstacles are removed from kids’ paths. Teachers seemed involved as well. Yet obviously this does little to promote problemsolving skills. And these tendencies won’t help develop one of the most important skills of all: how to be able to fail safely, learn from it and go on to do better.

Snowplow Parenting: a parenting style wherein parents remove obstacles from their child's path, because they believe it makes life easier, safer and happier. 

I was reminded of this point on a recent trip to Europe. As I navigated the conflicting and confusing train schedules, platforms, lines and connections, I was thankful for my experience riding the GO Train and TTC. Yes, I made mistakes. I once took the wrong train after a long day of work and was stuck travelling for 20 minutes in the complete opposite direction before I could get off and get on the next train that would take me home – eventually.

I never made that same mistake again. And yet I have made many others. I have missed buses, run through airports to make planes on time, failed tests and realized too late the deadlines for various awards and scholarships. I learned so much more from each of these experiences than I would have from a smooth and easy ride through life. Any time I’ve had to hunt for information or solve problems on my own, I grow in a way that wouldn’t be possible if I had received assistance, or let someone else do it for me.

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Brain Boost from Problem Solving

So I’m happy when my kids fail. It’s a really important life skill, and I advocate for learning how to do it without falling to pieces. I like to imagine our brains lighting up with different connections across the hemispheres and cross-functional patterns of creativity and logic as we consider and process options, ideas and plans.

I Iove to imagine the new possibilities stemming from defeat or a change of course.

My daughter has a new favourite expression, again supplied by her Grade 3 teacher. I like it so much more than all the other memes and mantras I see online daily. Here it is:

“Success is how well you manage plan B.”

Article Author Janice Quirt
Janice Quirt

Read more from Janice here.

Janice Quirt is a yoga teacher and freelance writer who lives in the beautiful hills of the Headwaters in Orangeville, Ontario, with her blended family of seven. With kids spanning a decade in age, there are always some shenanigans on the go, and she loves being in the middle of it all. Janice loves sharing nature, eco-living and new experiences with her family and friends, as well as a fine cup of coffee and a good book.

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