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Scrabble tiles that spell fail your way to success
David Jacobson

Back in the day, parents guilted their kids, letting them know how easy the younger generation had it. The prototype old-school parent would say, “When I was a kid, we had to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill, both ways.”

Nowadays – just as annoying and more limiting in the development of youth into responsible, accountable adults – the trend is toward “snowplow parents” who try to remove every obstacle from their children’s paths. In contrast, to ensure that Cadets learn resilience and other life lessons, you might say that Middle School Director Jamie Jurkovich wants to let it snow.

Two boys tying a tie

To develop boys into men of character, the stated mission of Saint Thomas Academy, those boys must face obstacles and challenges. “Kids need to fail,” Jurkovich said. “We learn from failure. Parents help their kids by letting them struggle. You allow them to develop critical social and emotional skills. You’re doing them a favor. When we let kids fail, we’re giving them gifts of experience, knowledge, resilience, and a chance to grow.”

Proof points, expressed in examples from ancient wisdom to the more modern, include:

Confucius’ quote, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Michael Jordan achieving basketball greatness after getting cut from his high school basketball team and later saying, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”

Sara Blakely, whom Forbes recognized as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, embracing her father’s frequent dinner-table question, "What did you fail at this week?"

Advice of uncertain origin to “prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.”

Rather than protecting their Cadets from hardship, Jurkovich urges parents to focus on helping their sons process their challenges. “When they do fail, how do they recover from that? Lean in and learn. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed. Celebrate it! It’s a chance to ponder what they could do better next time.”

A picture of a dad and son

This approach reinforces educational theories of Stanford University Psychology Professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset. Dweck contrasts “growth mindset,” an individual’s belief that effort and perseverance can lead to improvement and success, with “fixed mindset,” in which people believe that basic qualities, such as intelligence or talent, are fixed traits.

On children’s paths toward resilience and understanding that they can shape their own development as people, Jurkovich advised, “Praise them for their effort, not for how smart or talented they are. If they think that’s innate, it freezes them up. They don’t want to take risks,” which ultimately limits success.

Specific snowplow scenarios Jurkovich has experienced include parents calling to request a change to their son’s GPA so he would qualify for an award. Jurkovich -- channeling Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin – answered, “No. The standard is the standard.” Importantly, in terms of growth mindset, Jurkovich also told the parents their son had done very well and that they should congratulate him for that and suggest that next time he complete all his assignments and study harder.

“Middle-school grades won’t keep boys out of Harvard,” Jurkovich said. “What’s important is that they learn how to study, learn how to learn. Middle school is a time to stub your toe so that by the time you get to high school, when it counts more in terms of college applications, you’ve had a chance to grow.”

In other scenarios, parents have sought lettermen’s jackets for their sons who did not earn them, Jurkovich said. “I asked the parents if they thought their son would feel better or worse if we bent the standard.” And, when it comes to History Day projects, “Mr. Kaeppe reminds parents to let their kids do their own projects, unless they want an award for ‘Best Project by Mom.’”

To avoid snowplow parenting (or “curling parenting” as it is known in Denmark and certain parts of Minnesota), Jurkovich advises parents to limit how much attention they pay to the online Learning Management System and which alerts they set. “Don’t obsess over your son being late for second period. If there’s a problem, or a pattern we notice, the school will call you. Hourly micro-managing is not healthy for the boy or his parents.”

Jurkovich also recognized that he could be stricter in response to snowplow parent behavior. For example, he said, “If Johnny forgets his iPad or his homework or his gym shoes, you get one time to bring something to him. Other than that, just let him absorb the natural consequences. If he forgets his homework, it’s not the end of the world.

“I literally had a parent get a very expensive speeding ticket because a student forgot his iPad. For what? The student would have survived the day without his iPad. He’ll learn a lesson, and that will be better for him in the long run.”