“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”– Winston Churchill

The Netherlands is a rather wet country, so swimming class is a good idea. I’m very relaxed towards swimming class. I managed to get my A-level when I was nine, my B-level when I was ten. Not because of a lack of swimming classes, those were mandatory at school starting age six, no, I hated that teacher with a hook, developed a fear of water and only when we switched swimming pools and I restarted swimming class did I calm down and learn to swim. Our guppies have been floundering about in the pool for about two years now and until today (*) nobody got his or her diploma. But right now is very exciting, our youngest has been allowed to extra A-level training courses and the eldest ( fear of failure, swam through the 3-yard hole once and then adamantly refused to do it again) got extremely jealous so this week I’m at the swimming pool no less than four times, one class per kid, A-level training and a trial run for our daughter. In about an hour we’ll know whether she can enter A-level training or not. Tensions were running high in the car.

Afraid of…

Fear of failure, that little monster we got for free. A constant friend we know and recognize. According to the professional who helped our daughter it was pretty much unavoidable our guppies suffered from it on some level, they didn’t get much exposure to failure because they get mostly everything in one go and they’re both perfectionists. And the only way to get rid of it is.. you guessed it.. fail. Preferably hard. To anyone who has not tried to make a really intelligent child fail: Good luck. Especially when it is your own child it can be very hard. The first time we really looked her fear of failure in the eye we gave her a so-called Happy Cube, little cube-shaped puzzles, and by the time she got to the red-level, her mind had to work hard enough for her to take three evenings. She did not want to try, but neither did she want to quit because she just had to finish that puzzle. Yelling, screaming, crying, utter misery because it wasn’t going the way she wanted it. But she got it done. We have had more of those moments and every single time she proved both fearful and hardheaded, stubbornly persisting in the task at hand until she got it done. If she wants something, she will get it. We got a professional on board to help with the fear of failure and that turned out to be a really good move.

Where do you learn to fail?

And then you have to go to school. In school teachers expect you to fall over and get back up. The Netherlands has a schooling system that emphasizes grading, to measure is to know after all and pupils are confronted with grades and grading systems just because that’s how we pretend to measure their abilities and progress. A lower grade is automatically seen as unwanted and a bad thing. The Dutch word “onvoldoende” sums it up: A “voldoende” is a passing grade, and “on” means that it is the opposite of just that. I recall a compliment, sort of, I received from a man who taught me French: “Stefan, had you done as much the past year as you had done for this test you would have scored a passing grade instead of a four.” He wanted to reward me for my effort despite me clearly flunking that test and the comment stuck as I remembered it. Anyway, the school has different problems for overintelligent kids with a fear of failure, the lack of cognitive challenges that make you fall on your face is extremely high in primary school. It has to be the type of challenge that won’t let you succeed in one go, but in two, or three, and for years on end. To develop these materials and include in the curriculum takes time and the number of children to test the material on is very limited. To make it even harder a teacher must be smart and able enough to understand in what way he or she can challenge a child that is blindingly fast, probably faster than the teacher. To me, as a father, that seems like a difficult job. I have the same issue but at least I can start up Minecraft or an hour’s worth of class by Freek Vonk… but I cannot, really, because a fear of failure cannot be dealt with by school alone as per the above, as a parent/coach you have a job to do. If we praise our kids it is often on effort, not on result, and praising on effort is a lot easier because you can also praise them if things go wrong. We try to set an example when we make a mistake or fail ourselves, to teach them that this is part of life. If at first you do not succeed… try and try again.

Whilst my dear daughter was swimming I nervously chewed the nail of my thumb. An hour later she made it and could enroll in the A-level training course. It took us a while to get there, we started out in the shower (“NO I DONT WANT WATER ON MY HEAD”), but we ended here, a girl with a huge grin on her face and eyes gleaming with pride because she knew it took some effort to get there. Yes!

(*) Both kids have managed to get their A-levels and are now going for B. No, I have no clue how to get your kids to swim.

This blog is written by Stefan Onderheuvel, a Dutch father of two profoundly gifted kids.