Failing Forward: A Lesson in Clean Up


Todo el mundo derrama, lo importante es limpiarlo 

Translation: Everyone spills; the important thing is to clean it up. This is one of my mantras. I repeat almost daily to my little ones aged five and three. I want them to grow up without fear of spilling, dropping, dirtying, messing up — all of which amount to failing.

I want to raise kids who try, who risk, who challenge themselves, and who rise to the occasion. Through failing they will learn to pour water, to carry eggs, to measure flour. They will spill less with practice, but even when they are grown, they will still spill. The important thing to teach them is to run for a dry towel and to clean up their mess. In my house, failure gets celebrated when we have been courageous enough to confront it, learn from it, and make amends.

This is all easier said than done in a society that blanketly rejects failure.

The Daily Struggle

Even as the adult, I need a regular reminder to clean up my own messes. Last night I fought with my five-year-old again. He had disobeyed my directions to stay inside. My husband went to help an elderly neighbor who had fallen off her ladder and broken her hip. I had been cooking and watching the three-year-old. All of the sudden, I didn’t know where my son had gone or what kind of trouble he might have gotten into. I was worried both about my son and my neighbor. And I was trying not to burn the dinner that I had been thanklessly preparing after a long day at work.

When my son got back I ripped into him, telling him all manner of falsehoods like “kids can’t help; they just get in the way!” He fought back, screaming: “It’s not true! Kids can help! You’re lying!” I was too exasperated to lower my voice or soften in any visible way. But on the inside I was proud of him for standing up for himself and children worldwide.

Taking a Stand

For years I have been encouraging my son to be vocal against injustice, even against me. I would remind him: “you can tell me if you think it’s unfair, or if you think I am talking to you in an unkind voice, or if you’re mad at me. Everyone gets mad, and it’s an important emotion to talk about.”

I deeply agree with Mister Roger’s adage that “everything that’s mentionable is manageable.” I was glad that he did not cower under my roar. I also realized that his own, new-found voice is still precarious, and its residency in our home will depend in large part on my hospitality toward it. So, while we were eating dinner I began to think: clean up, clean up, clean up. Everyone spills, but only some people run to get a dry towel.

It Starts at the Top

My version of cleaning up: I apologized to both of my boys. The older one asked what I had done to the younger one, and I replied that my yelling must have scared him (which he confirmed). I told them that I don’t want either child to be scared or feel insecure in their own home. I flatly admitted that I yelled, and that I shouldn’t have.

I didn’t want to dwell in my guilt, since that would also produce an adverse affect on my little ones. I needed to convey that some behaviors are unacceptable, and that they should trust their instinct to rebel against what feels wrong to them. I needed to mention it — to put words to their feeling of injustice — so we could manage it. That night, while hugging my older son, I reminded him that all families fight. And that even when we fight I still love him. And that there is nothing he can do or say that will erase my love, or even lessen it.

The most important thing to do after a failure, or a spill, is to use it for some good purpose. In contemporary discourse this is called failing forward: using your very real failure to model atonement or to make amends, or even just to recognize that all is not lost.

We can’t not fail, but we can fail forward. We can run for a dry towel.


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Mariana loves sandwiches best, although going 95% vegan two years ago means having traded in ham and swiss for eggplant and roasted red pepper. Her boys, Santiago (5) and Sebastian (3), agree that sliced bread is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The boys are native Spanish speakers despite the fact that neither of their parents is, which has made raising them in Spanish a labor of love. Her commitment to raising bilingual children was made possible by being a first-generation Chilean-American born and raised in New York City, and by having spent two pre-kid years living abroad in Mexico City and Salamanca, Spain. Mariana moved to the RGV in 2010 and never wants to live anywhere else. While the kids are at school, Mariana is a full-time Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UTRGV. She has written for the New York Times, Womankind Magazine, and Yahoo Parenting.


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