“Communicating Trauma” on the Virtual Book Club!

I am so very excited to have my award winning book offered on the ISSTD Virtual Book Club for eight weeks, starting April 25 (what a pretty flyer, too!! Thank you Mary Pat!)

Working with children?

Working with adults who used to be children? …

Come and join us!

Yehuda Spring 2016 Vitual Book Club

Find the Unexpected

Today, find something unexpected. Learn a fact you did not know. Claim a new piece of knowledge or practice a new skill. Watch an animal you’ve never seen before. Read a bit of trivia that surprises, gives a chuckle, raises eyebrows, tickles curiosity for more.

Today, practice the experience of wonder.

Today, remember what it was–can be like, often is–to be a child.

Rosy Maple Moth

Rosy Maple Moth

 

Bargibanti Pygmy Seahorse

Bargibanti Pygmy Seahorse

 

T-Rex Trivia

T-Rex Trivia

Hippo Trivia

Hippo Trivia

 

 

 

 

Finding the Ability in Disability

This is a wonderful talk. Inspiring, and well worth the time. Rachel Kolb does a brave, important thing in this talk. Watch it, and let your children watch it, too. Tell your colleagues. If you are a teacher–it is a must. If you work with children–watch it. You will be happy that you had.

Navigating deafness in a hearing world

It is a talk about deafness, but it is not only about deafness. It is about abilities and what we can do and what we worry we cannot and how this in of itself can limit us. It is also about the realities of difference and the many challenges that children (and families) face. It is about the barriers for communication and interaction and how they manifest throughout the domain. It is about the scope of issues that cascade from deafness (and can from other disabilities, as well).

It is about a lot of what still needs to change, and can. In 90% of families of deaf children born to hearing parents, the parents do not learn to communicate effectively (i.e. sign) with their child. Deaf children born to hearing parents are less likely to develop fluent writing skills than those born to deaf parents. It is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding. Where communication suffers, attachment suffers, and abilities suffer. Communication MATTERS.

“Never put limitations on that child,” the Speech Therapist of a then 18 months old Rachel Kolb told her mother. I like that clinician without ever having met her! Because she was right, and because she said Truth: we never do know how far a child would go, and we must give them the tools and support to get there. Not every child will reach the same goals, but we owe it to them to not impose our own limited view onto them.

As for that Speech Therapist–Oh Boy, was she right about Rachel Kolb! This young woman soars! She chooses how to use the abilities she does have, and she uses them spectacularly. This is one wonderfully unlimited woman! You’d be happy to have made the time to listen.

Listen to this talk. It may reassure you that you are on the right path if you are struggling or helping someone else who is. It may help you truly realize how not all differences in perceived ability mean differences in actual ability. It may improve your understanding of the challenges that hearing impaired persons face, and through them, the realities of other limitations. It may help your children understand the difference between accommodating and ‘indulging’, and how someone’s need for help does not mean they cannot think for themselves or should be seen as lesser than.

It is an amazing talk. Instructive, intelligent, impressive.

It WILL inspire you.

For those wondering: eighteen years of Speech Therapy is a long time. It is also not that unusual for people with severe and profound hearing loss to require that amount of time in therapy. This is not because they are slow to learn, but the act of communication is multifaceted and complex and what we take for granted is difficult to do with much reduced and distorted sound. Hearing impaired persons need help not just learn to speak and improve the clarity of their speaking, but also to speech-read (understand what a person is saying from the movement of their lips and face), to discriminate close-sounding words, to learn to rely on context, to identify new words and learn the difference between how they are written and how they are said (and heard/speech-read). They need to keep up with the realities of underlying information in language (e.g. expressions, ambiguous language, discrimination between words that sound the same to them). They work hard in Speech Therapy and they can do exceedingly well, if given the chance.

Rachel Kolb is deaf. But she is not limited. She’s been given the chance and she’s grabbed hold with two hands and then some. There were those she met in who were limited, however. Not deaf, but limited in their vision and understanding. Like the riding instructor who told her that she would never learn to ride. Or others who judge her for her voice without listening to what she has to say. It is them who have a sort of deafness, I suppose. It is them who were limiting, and in that they were limited.

Lets us not be limited. Let children grow limitless in their ability to work hard, master skills, and achieve the best they can do, not the best we think they should be able to.

Find the ability, and the sky is the limit.

Be a Light

be a light

“Can people be like light?” The question comes from a bright-eyed five-year-old (who in my view lights the room wherever she goes …).

“What do you think?” (my almost standard response to children’s questions–lets me know what they already have in mind …)

“I don’t know,” frown, scowl, “that’s why I’m asking YOU!”

(Oops, strategy backfired. Okay, I guess I deserved that)

“Why are you asking?” I am treading carefully here, asking again in a different way, but I am really interested in knowing what the question is about.

“My Nana told me I’m her light,” the girl’s young forehead creases in concentration. “She said, ‘you the light of my life!'”

“Aw … it’s a great expression! And a very sweet thing for her to say. I can totally see why.” Children of her age group often begin to notice that there are some things people say that do not quite make sense: the words don’t add up, and they realize that there has to be another meaning, something else that’s being conveyed by the words but is not the words themselves (e.g. “she has a sharp tongue” or “he has no heart” or “raining cats and dogs” …). Sometimes they can infer the meaning, sometimes they are lost or have some sense they are not sure about. I love it when they ask. “What do you think she meant?”

Girl shoots me a “there she goes again with her Speech Pathologist questions again” look, but she relents. She’s patient with me. “That she loves me?”

“Yep … and what else do you think it can mean that you are the light of her life?” I wait.

Eyebrows up, lips scrunched in thought, “… and … that she’s really happy to have me or happy to see me maybe?”

“Yes! Both. Very much so. Also that you are important to her, and that you bring her joy, and that you make her feel better by simply being you. All of that.”

The child smiles. Beams, more like.

We go on with the session. Suddenly she stops again and asks (it is very often that things percolate a while before another level of query bubbles up to the surface): “Can someone be a light for other people?”

“Do you mean for more than one person?” I want to make sure I understand.

A nod.

“Absolutely. I think you can be a light in many people’s lives.”

Pause, thought, creased forehead. Smile. “Oh, like, if you turn the light on then it is light for everyone?”

My turn to nod. My turn to smile. Super smart cookie, that one.

“Cool!” Eyes wide.  Now that she’s got it, she runs with it. “I wish … I wish I could be a light for every every EVERY ONE in the whole wide world!  A big light that goes all over around! You think I can?”

She may not know it, but I think she already is one …

 

Make Rain, Not Thunder

rainnotthunder

“ENOUGH!”

How many times have you heard this spoken loudly (word interchangeable, same intention) from a fed-up parent, caregiver or teacher to a child? How many times have you yourself said this or something similar in anger, to a child?

Frustration happens when dealing with little ones with strong opinionated minds and limited awareness for time, urgency, consequences or your priorities; it is inevitable. Children can be persistent, stubborn, wild, loud, aggravating, aggressive, irritating, exhausting. Caregivers get fed up, tired, annoyed, irritated, overwrought. They can have bad days with too much to do, too little sleep, too many children to care for, too many demands with too few hands to do them with, too many worries. Crises, emergencies, a clogged sink, a car that would not start, yet another ‘accident’ right after cleaning is finally done … Children, especially young ones, rarely know to take adult burdens and juggling into account. On the contrary, it is as though they are uncannily aware of any lag or energy slump … and if anything, are more likely to be needy, clingy, whiny, and doubly argumentative exactly when you have the least time or energy to spread around … (FYI, it is mostly not done to drive you nuts, but because children may need to reassure themselves even more when you are stressed, that you are there for them: a difficult cycle, when you have to be extra-patient when there is least patience to be found …).

Parents and caregivers are human. They make errors. They get upset. They may raise their voice, match their child one to one in volume, heel-digging, and demand. It happens, and as long as it does not happen too often, it can be repaired with comfort and apology, time to reconnect, some soothing, an opportunity to explain and understand.

In general, however, children listen better when the volume is set lower. Calm allows the brain to form connections that make meaning, while anxiety and overwhelm awaken circuits of survival while shutting higher learning down. Experienced teachers will tell you that they keep their voice low to keep the children listening: it may seem paradoxical, but in effect it works like a charm. Gentle speaking allows the intonation and cadence of your thoughts to pass through better. It allows the listener to let it in without alarm. It differentiates emotions and helps regulate a child’s understanding of nuance and intention.

A raised voice is a good tool for calling an alarm, to keep the child away from danger, to make clear what should not be done to prevent harm. For instruction, though, the raised voice spins way off the target, and misses by a long shot: the meaning of the words you wanted to convey gets lost in the tone and loudness of the sound.

We cannot force flowers to grow faster by pulling on the stalks, nor would it help if we stalked constantly, demanding them to hasten. We cannot make a plant drink more by spewing a stronger stream of water–it will only exposes roots and hit raw nerves. With children, too, we cannot force growth by raising our voice or hardening our words. We’d get a reaction, maybe, but not learning, and we’d shut down tendrils of potential besides.

“Raise your words, not your voice” Rumi said. Yes. Whenever possible, use good words, taken from and guided by the better part of yourself or the best part of yourself that you can find at that moment. Explain more, demand less: “it is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”

Children, too, grow best in gentle sprinkles, rather than thunderstorms.

How do you teach integrity?

integrity

We all want the children in our lives to have integrity and a moral compass. We want them to not only know right from wrong, but to apply it. We wish for them to have empathy toward others and to choose the better path not just to avoid punishment, but because it is the right thing to do.

That’s all well and good, but how do you teach integrity? How is it related to empathy and is it even something that is learned, or something one has to be born with? Something some of us ‘have’ and others ‘not’?

Though individual sensitivity and empathy-capacity varies, and some children are born with more empathy-capacity than others, empathy is still something almost all children can learn and have develop. Children vary in the age they begin to show clear empathy, but babies and young children are naturally self-centered and egoistical. It is normal for them to view others’ feelings through their own and to judge situations according to whether they’d get a reward or keep from getting punished, rather than the inherent morality. Fairness may be easier to detect, but true morality is learned, as is the reasons for it.

A child may not eat another’s cookie not because they persuade themselves they do not want it, but because the praise for not doing so may be worth more, or the disappointment of another in them if they not abstain may feel worse than the immediate gratification of eating the cookie. Children learn to share–maybe at first not so much because they truly want to share, but because of the positive feedback and praise that they get when they do so. With good modeling and opportunities, they can be taught how others may have feelings just like their own, and that other people’s feelings matter, too (e.g. if someone ate their candy, they’d be sad, so they can understand how if they took another’s treat the other child may feel sad about it). While some toddlers show well developed empathy, oftentimes it is through the preschool and then kindergarten years, that children learn to appreciate another persons’ pain, and to understand that another person may hold a different opinion or agenda and to accept that as okay. They learn to follow rules (all the better when rules are clear, consistent, and kind), and they practice enforcing rules in their peer and imaginary play.

How do they learn that? Well, empathy and integrity are best taught through empathy and integrity. It may sound simplistic, but there are all too many examples of attempts to teach integrity through fear of punishment (“If you take candy without paying, the police will take you to jail”), or empathy through guilt-inducing and shame (“look what you did–now she’s crying! I told you to not take her teddy bear from her!”) Fear can certainly be a deterrent, but fear is not integrity, nor is guilt the same as empathy.

Teach empathy through modeling your own. Children who have sensitive caregivers who show them care, who reflect their feelings back to them, and help them put experiences into words, are more likely to develop empathy themselves and to do so sooner. Be kind, demonstrate sympathy and empathy toward others–let your child see how you help a neighbor, or feed a stray, or hold a door for someone whose arms are full. Explain to your children about disabilities and differences, and make sure that you do not display disgust or ambivalence about the same. Apologize if you hurt someone–the child, too–even if by mistake, and acknowledge the feelings that your error caused and the need (and possibility) for repair. Be respectful of others’ feelings. Be kind.

Similarly, children whose parents and caregivers live by the same rules that they demand, learn integrity as a cohesive, non-confusing concept. Confusing rules result in confused and inconsistent learning. It is rather simple (if not easy): If you don’t want your child to lie, don’t tell them to answer the phone call you don’t want to take and say “Mommy’s not home,” or “Mommy is in the shower” (when you are not). If you don’t want your child to steal, don’t bring home pens from the office … If you don’t want them to cheat, don’t justify not following the rules at other times (lying about a child’s age to get out of fare or parking at a handicap space also counts …). Don’t promise what you do not intend to keep or just to get peace and quiet for the moment (“If you give your toy to your baby sister I will buy you a toy tomorrow”). Promises that are not kept, teach a child that words are empty and that it is okay to use untruth to defer discomfort. Be honest. Even when it is difficult. ‘fess up if you lied and explain how it happened and why you’d work hard to not have it happen again. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be a good enough role model … and to have the same patience with your child if they miss a step. Be curious rather than accusatory: a child who said an untruth to escape punishment is not “a liar”–though they may have lied. Don’t label, and let them explain what they feared would happen if they did tell the truth. You may find out something you need to learn, too: are your consequences fair? Would you have indeed flown off the handle or blamed them anyway?

Integrity begins with you. As does empathy. That includes empathy for yourself, as well. Be kind to yourself, let your child see a gentle way of relating to oneself as well as toward others. Be aware of phrases such as “I’m so fat” or “I’m such a loser” or “UGH, I’m such a moron!”–they get copied, they get internalized. Also, not only are you giving a less than kind model, but you are also bad mouthing your child’s parent … it is their mom or dad you are talking about …

Give children consistent fair rules, a good model, kind reflection, sensitive explanation, and they will learn that it feels good to be kind, and feels good to make a choice that is the right one. Even little ones can.

“I saw something amazing” a mom of a kid I work with called to tell me. “I gave Dave (age 5) a treat that he earned for cleaning up his room all week without whining, and he went to play outside on the deck. It is a two-family home and the neighbors’ children often come down to play, too. Tommy,  the neighbor’s kid, came downstairs to play. I saw Dave look at Tommy, then at his fruit-roll-up. He didn’t see me, but you could see his little brain working–clearly Tommy would want some … Dave then pulled out the whole roll-up, tore it in two, and gave half to Tommy. It was so sweet, I wanted to run out and hug him, but I also didn’t want to interfere–he was being kind because he chose to, and that was his moment, not mine. I am so proud!”

So was I.

Be You!

beyourself

“My life is over!” the child’s tone says it all. It has been an especially rough day. He failed a test he’d studied for, got passed over for the team he wanted to play in, and just found out he needed glasses. Oh, and that he’s allergic to dairy. The food he loves most in the world is pizza. Figures.

I could see something was wrong when he came up the stairs with shoulders slumped and legs dragging.  He’s usually content enough to come here, but today the last thing he wanted was to have to spend time after school doing ‘after-school’ learning. He likes me well enough, but in the competition between play-date, video game, movie, or seeing me, I don’t stand a chance. It’s as it should be. I get worried if children prefer coming to me to having spare time or play time or get-home-and-relax time. He’s unusually unhappy to come this time. Or rather, he’s unusually unhappy, and it shows. Make sense that it would. Am glad it can.

“And I’m never ever going to be like everyone else,” he adds, having listed the tally of difficulty, bummers and unfairness.

“Why is it good to be like everyone else?” I ask.

He returns the look I probably deserved–the one reserved for adults who ask stupid questions when they should know better and when the query is not even worthy of the effort of forming a reply.

“Okay, okay …” I chuckle, hands up in trounce. “I didn’t mean it that way. I do, however, truly think that everyone is different and that it fine and often even better that way.”

Eye roll. At least he regained enough energy for sarcasm. “Yeah, sure. But you get to be really different and you end up being weird.

Fair enough.

“And anyway,” he sighs. “I don’t have a choice. Everyone has to do the same stuff at school, and everyone is supposed to get good grades, and be popular and that kind of stuff.”

“Hmm …” (when I say less, the kids tend to say more … I wait).

“School is too hard and it is too boring. And my dad thinks I’m not trying but I am working hard. I’m not a genius or a nerd or something. I’m not good at reading and I suck at math. And science … I failed science … my dad is going to hate me when he finds out.”

I wish I could rush to reassure this boy–barely 11 and already so jaded–that he is not expected to be like everyone else, that he is not expected to excel in everything regardless of his relative strengths, that his perception of needing to be popular is not correct … or that his father would not have a reaction that would crush him. Oh, I know that the father would not hate him, but he can be critical, and he tends to view grades as the only reflection of effort. He would likely see a failed test as an immediate proof of his son not trying hard enough. Even if he does not ‘punish’ him by taking away computer time or confiscating his phone for a weekend, the disappointment alone will devastate this child.

“He doesn’t understand,” the boy adds. His voice catches and he looks away, old enough to have internalized the (mis)conception that tears are somehow yet a marker of weakness. He doesn’t want to show me how much this matters. “I studied really hard and I knew all the notes but then the teacher changed the questions. How was I supposed to know the answers to those?” the color rises in his cheeks, wetness in his eyes. He looks away again.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I mean it. “I know how hard you work and I can see how having different questions–even if it was about the same material–can make it much more difficult. It is hard to figure out what the teacher meant and what the questions are about.” He nods. This boy is not making excuses. He comes to see me because he has difficulty with retrieving information–the access to what he knows is hit-and-miss, his brain behaves more like one big dump of knowledge than a filing cabinet. Information comes in haphazardly and is later hard to recognize or organize. He is smart, and he understands the material. However, change it around and he gets lost.

The teachers only marginally understand it. His father thinks that there’s nothing wrong with his son that a bit more ‘motivation’ won’t fix. It is curious, you might think, that he is that harsh when he admitted to having had learning issues himself. Or maybe not curious at all: people can pass judgement like a hot potato–what they cannot stand to hold, they put onto another. It can be especially so between mother and daughter, between father and son. Mirrors are a painful thing for what one did not accept in oneself and sees reincarnated in their progeny.

“Would you like me to speak with your father?” I offer. I’ve done it before, and it helps some, if temporarily. The father is of the opinion that I am far too soft and that kids wrap me around their little finger and I think they can do no wrong. He is not all that far from the truth, actually. I do believe that softness and kindness get farther and build better than harsh critic and demand. To his credit, the father also respects my opinion, and he does–quite touchingly–love his son. He told me once, in a moment of vulnerability, “I don’t want him to go through what I did. I want him to fit in better. To be a better student than I was. To be like everyone else.” (Yes, the boy now worries about same. Children will take on our fears and worries–they are acutely tuned in to what we think, even if we do not say it. They will know, and take it on)

The boy nods. He looks up at me then, hopefully slightly relieved–if not with the possibility of his father’s understanding, than by being believed. “If it is so good to be different,” he challenges, “what am I good in?”

“What do you think?” (my standard answer-query. I figure, if a child is asking, they already have a hypothesis in mind)

Moment of thought, pursed lips, raised eyebrow. “I’m good at drawing,” he states.

I energetically agree. The cartoons this boy can doodle put my best attempts at stick figures to shame. He smiles. He knows–as I often emphasize to the kids–drawing is not one of my strengths (five-year-olds come to my aid on a regular basis. “Let me do it for you,” the munchkins offer, “you are not very good at that…”). He smiles.

“And at snowboarding,” he adds. I nod. He began snowboarding only the winter before last, and reportedly advanced super fast from level to level. He snowboards with children several years older now. “I want to be a professional snowboarder when I grow up,” he says, the spark back in his eyes, “and wouldn’t it be cool if I drew, like, cartoons of snowboarding stuff, you know, for newspapers and maybe comics and such? I bet I could do that. Would that be awesome stuff?!”

I smile. “That is pretty cool stuff! You have got to do school work because that’s just how it is, and you have to do your best with that. But I am thinking, there are a lot of kids who would love to know to draw as well as you do, and most can’t snowboard half as well as you can.”

He grins. Proud.

“So …,” I note gently, “maybe life is not quite over … and maybe it is not such a bad thing to have some stuff where you are not exactly like everyone.”

hopeis

Make Memories Together

by etsy

by etsy

One of the best things you can do with children is … well … to DO with children. Children–like all of us–learn through experiencing. Even more than us adults, they are wonderfully open to new learning. Their brains are literally forming as they grow. They are shaped and influenced by what they see, do, hear, feel, perceive, experience, understand, sense, have opportunity for.

Doing with children is not measured by how many classes you sign them up for, how many play-dates you arrange, the kinds of electronic gadgets or software or toys you have, how many flashcards your child can recognize by age one or how early they can recognize letters or write their names. Academics are important (though maybe not as early as some seem to push for), but they should not come instead of making memories. Of taking time to do together.

It is not about school or homework, either. It is about playing with them, spending time with them, reading to them, acting out the stories, building with blocks or constructing castles from cardboard boxes together, making forts from couch cushions and blankets, being silly, going on backyard adventures, telling jokes.

Feeling too short on time? Incorporate doing into household chores. Yes, the children may slow you down, and there may be more messes to clean up or some doing over to complete after their eyes close at night. However, your children will learn, and they will learn from you, and with you: spending time doing things together can be some of the best memories you can give. Children of all ages can benefit from ‘coming along’ or ‘doing with’ (oh, sure, preteens may make a face, but secretly they crave more time with parents, especially if that time is not for formal instruction or ‘grilling’ about school … and you’d be surprised how many conversations happen when hands are busy with a task together).

Every task can be adapted to a child’s age and ability. Baking cookies or making dinner? Depending on your child’s level, you can measure ingredients (cup, ounce, pound, liter, gallon, teaspoon, pinch, dollop …), list items, sizes and order, read or write down a recipe, watch the clock together to learn time, plan a meal, research unusual cuisines. Going for a walk? Pick leaves of different colors, count cars of various colors of identify specific vehicles and the occupations they serve, stare at a pigeon pecking on the sidewalk and compare birds to bugs to mammals to reptiles, compare views and favorites, discuss endangered animals. Folding laundry together? Sort by color, size, material, season, types of fastener, talk of fashion and media, of fitting in and being fit. Empty the dishwasher (silverware, dishes, saucers, bowls, serving platters, large-medium-small, glass, plastic, ceramic, good china, the best meal and the worst experience, school lunch, social tensions in the cafeteria …). Grocery shopping? A bonanza of options: food groups, colors, shapes, containers, ingredients, numbers, top-middle-bottom, left-right shelves. Write down list, read it aloud, check off what you put in the cart, learn about coins’ value and paper money, budget, making choices, sticking to a plan.

Make memories. Your child may not remember how many flashcards you read to them or the name of all the tutors you got for them or even all the places that you took them to … but they may well remember the time you spent teaching them how to sew a button or built a tent in the living-room, helped them bake their first ‘from scratch cookies’ or let them make a mess in the kitchen while you listened to the conundrum they had about a friend and did not judge. Want to reinforce a memory? Take a photo, write a caption, make a book together: “Michel’s First Cookies”–document the process, print the photos, tape them onto paper, write the story of them underneath. Read and have the child ‘read’ it to someone else who was not there with you (grandparents make excellent captive audiences …). Enlist older kids to make photo books or edit images into a video together.

Find wonder in small things. See and seize opportunity. Snowing? Research the unique shapes of flakes, make cutouts, hang them from the ceiling for some ‘indoor snow’ (extra memories credit for glitter …). Raining? Re-create the water cycle, demonstrate gravity, check out about steam and condensation. Grow avocado plants, sprout potatoes (learn of more than one meaning for ‘eye’ and get curious about other multiple meaning words–spring, trunk, bark, nail, key, slip, pen …). Learn together. Try new things. Fail and err and laugh and try again.

Make time for making memories. It’s hard, I know, but find the time. You don’t have to take off from work or travel to a different country. You can pluck time from the tasks you are already doing and turn them into time spent in building your child’s connection with you. You’ll also enrich their brain, skills, confidence, know-how, and sense of worthiness.

Time flies. Kids grow. Before you know the mess is gone and they are flying solo. Give the gift of sensitive, involved attention. These memories will be what they can pack along ‘to go’.

Photo Credit: S.L.

Photo Credit: S.L.

No learning is ever wasted

No learning is ever wasted.

No experience is ever for naught.

It is what meaning we find which makes the difference

Between what we believe was useless

And what can in fact be used, quite a lot.

Hardship breaks the heart open

It splinters the spirit

But in the spaces then made there is room more to grow.

There is pause for refocus, for remeasuring hope

For finding compassion, for opening of doors

For a new understanding,

Improving the focus on all of life’s scopes.

No learning is ever wasted.

No true lesson is ever for naught.

experience

Failing successfully!

Photo Credit: S.E.

Photo Credit: S.E.

I saw a family the other week, two boys stuffing bags in the trunk of a black car while the father–in suit, briefcase, two phones, and tie–bid them goodbye.

“Did you remember everything?” the mom called from the driver’s seat, “we can’t come back for it all the way from the rink.” The boys nodded in unison. “Then get in the car and let’s get moving,” the mother urged. “I don’t want to hit traffic!”

The dad patted the older boy on the shoulder and the fleece-hatted head of the younger one. “Remember boys …” he paused to look at his children–one about 12, the other a bit younger, maybe 10–“Don’t be failures!”

“We won’t dad!” the boys chanted back and clambered into the backseat.

It startled me, that last exchange. What kind of a thing to say is that? How can these kids be “Be Failures” anyway? Does having a bad practice, missing a puck, doing badly on a test, even being chosen last for a team–equate with being “A Thing That Fails?” How much failure does one have to accumulate to acquire the definition of “A Failure”? Can it even be attributed to a child, who is by definition still learning how to succeed and as part of that process, must sometimes–in fact, very often–fail? Do we not all of us fail, repeatedly, through life, as we try new things, reach too far too soon, make bad choices, fall into cracks in life’s pavement, trip over our own egos, forget to listen to our instincts, or even just need to hone a skill that’s rusty or nascent and needs more failure to become a Thing That Thrives?

That father seemed kind, even affectionate. I believe he meant to motivate his son. He was upbeat, casual, every-day’ish, and likely unaware that his choice of words made an event–the result of many factors where at least some may be outside of one’s control–into a definition of self-worth.

How can losing, even failing–become BEING the failure? Learning is impossible without experiencing failure. If we define failure as something that is an attribute of WHO we are, how can we expect to move ahead, to try again, to think anew, to hold a hope, to find a path, to dissect a result we did not wish for so we can find what we may do differently the second, third or hundredth’s time around?

Theodore Roosevelt said: ““It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

The operative word here, in my view, is “to have tried.” Success is not guaranteed. At least not what some may see as success, for is not small progress–a lesson learned, an understanding achieved–also success? Philosophy aside, while success may not be guaranteed, failure, of course is. We all fail. We have to. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are not good at what we did not practice yet. We cannot solve problems we have not found the cause or weak spot of. We cannot change course without an obstacle, a shift, a fault line, a blocked path. Experiencing failure is inevitable. It is a crucial part of growing up and it is an ongoing part of life throughout.

To “Be A Failure”, however,  is not inevitable. Not even with much failure. A Failure is something one is made to become. It is a belief, rather than a result. It is a cementing of a view of oneself as “The One Who Fails” and as such by definition not “The One Who Succeeds.”

That dad said: “Don’t be Failures.” Maybe he meant: “Win the game.” I would like to believe he meant: “Learn well. Practice hard. Be focused. Play well. Do your best, every time. Have fun.”

People fail. Often. Children fail. All the time. None of it makes them Failures. Words matter. Words have power. How we use them gives them power. Unlike success, which is ever possible, being a Failure is doomed to fail.

What defines success? A gold medal, surely. We all know that. But does a Silver count? Does it have to be the Olympics? What about coming in fifth after giving it your all or getting in last on a task you trained hard to even complete? How about finally learning to tie your shoelaces so they stay tied more times than not, or getting a 70 on a test in a subject where you previous only managed 62, or reading a book with less help or doing your homework with less mistakes or doing your homework, period, when it feels too hard?

Success does not mean being first, or strongest, richest, smartest, tallest, least-caught-in-bending-the-rules, or most-able-to-get-away-with-what-others-can’t. Success is every time we fail a little less. Every time we meet a challenge and hold determination that we can attempt it one more time and have it be different if only for the fact that it is the fiftieth attempt and not the forty-ninth and we’re still working at it. Success also means changing course, letting go, realizing that one’s passion may not be where one thought success was to be defined. Success means being honest about our abilities, being happy with others’ about theirs, enjoying or at least finding meaning in the process, managing our failures without guilt or shame. To succeed is to look at failure and learn from it. It is to try again, or differently, or figure out what and who we need to help us where we may require aid.

As Winston Churchill’s said: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

May there be–for you and for the children in your life, especially–no lack of enthusiasm as you stumble, joyfully, into cumulative success.