Failure Is Not an Option


A couple of days ago, I posted a picture of my oldest daughter and described her struggles with anxiety and school. I talked about how proud I was of her for fighting—even when she is fighting me. Although it looked like she was being obstinate and resistant, I could tell she was getting the message that she can’t give in.

Well, now it’s my oldest son’s turn. Here he is (17 years old) hammering away at a bunch of carpet tack strips in the basement. We’re in the process of shifting kids’ bedrooms around, and that involves ripping up the beat-up carpet in one room so we can put down a new floor. It’s going to be his own private room, and he’s really excited about it. He helped me pull up the old carpet and pad, and now, after a brief demonstration by me, he has decided he wants to remove all the tack strips by himself.

Now, to a neurotypical family, this would not be a big deal. The boy is old enough, and basic skills like this should be, well, basic enough for him to be able to pick up with no problem.

But we’re not a neurotypical family. We have ASD coming out the ying yang. This boy in particular has had more than his fair share of challenges. Especially hard for him were chores involving loud noises and sharp objects. He needed a ton of accommodations in his Ceramics and Foundations of Tech classes because of all the tools he was expected to use. So to see this kid happily banging away with a hammer was nothing short of a miracle.

Pushing Through.

So what has changed? One answer is that the payout was attractive enough to motivate him. What kid wouldn’t love his own bedroom? I also think it’s a testament to how hard he has worked these past couple of years. This boy has come into his own in a way I would have once considered impossible. He has pushed himself, and he has been pushed, to confront the things that trigger him. He has pushed himself, and he has been pushed, to take uncomfortable steps that will lead to greater independence. He has pushed himself, and he has been pushed, to move away from the typically narrow, black-and-white mindsets that bedevil most ASD people.

Notice how I said that he has pushed himself . . . and he has been pushed. Katie and I try not to go soft on our kids. We know the world is rough, and we’d rather they faced some of its junk now while they’re still with us. My boy also has an awesome case manager and behavioral specialist at school. These fellows, along with the psychiatrist and counselor he sees privately, have literally saved his academic career. No one is letting up.

A False Label.

But I think something else is at play here. Katie and I are learning that failure is not an option. We have come to hate that word, in fact. It’s a cruel term that conjures up images of slumped shoulders, dunce caps, long faces, and finger-pointing onlookers. It’s a powerful word that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if you seen the world in the black-and-white hues of ASD. Once the F-bomb has been dropped, the fallout can last a very long time. 

This doesn’t mean that we try to cover over failures and pretend they never happen. That’s not what we mean when we say it’s not an option. It’s not an option because failure is not a legitimate category. It’s a false label. It’s a lie, and a dangerous one at that. It sets up a binary universe in which there are only two options: success and failure. It leaves no room for growth, learning, and progress. It’s a damning obstacle more stubborn than a brick wall lined with kryptonite. Like the concepts of minutes and seconds, or dollars and cents, failure a human construct that has value only because we invest it with so much meaning.

Mind you, we didn’t learn this from self-help books. We didn’t pick it up from Oprah or Stuart Smalley. Our kids taught it to us.

The boy who didn’t talk until he was nearly four and who is now singing in the all-county chorus taught us.

The boy whose fifth-grade teacher told us he wasn’t “cut out for school” but who is now on the honor roll taught us.

The girl who was convinced that epilepsy was the final nail in her coffin but who is now pushing herself through the school doors every morning taught us.

The boy who needed pull-ups until he was halfway through first grade but who is now [ahem] regular, taught us.

And the young man who once ran away at the sight of a butter knife but who just picked up a hammer and started whacking away taught us. 

Failure is not an option because it isn’t real.

3 thoughts on “Failure Is Not an Option

  1. Gosh, this is amazing. I am so not there yet. My kids struggle so hard with the most basic demands I feel like they will never feel proud of themselves for anything. I want lose hope lately because despite meds, services and homeschool accommodations they just have some aversion to academics or to pushing themselves at all and I can’t understand it. I know I need to be grateful for the baby steps like this but it can be so hard. It’s like so much effort and pain for so little gain. Thanks for giving me hope….

    • I hope I didn’t make it sound as if everything was chocolate and roses, Deborah! We have had huge melt downs, dramatic scenes involving law enforcement, and depressing parent-teacher-principal meetings. I don’t usually post the negative stuff any more because my kids are getting older, and they’re on social media now. All I can say is that every baby step means a lot more than we parents often appreciate. Our experience has been that they accumulate and gather momentum faster than we think. Two years, three years, five years in, and we look back and see how much progress has been made. We also have learned to adjust our expectations. Like my boy picking up a hammer. What 17-year-old would treat this as a revolution? But he did. So some of this is perspective. But yes, it’s hard. It’s painful. It can be gut-wrenching. But in the end, no matter what they say, the kids know deep down how much you love them. And that is worth a mint. Thanks for your honest comment!

  2. I agree with so much of this! We work to both help our daughter live in the world, and to provide her with a safe harbor. And she surprises us all the time by reaching milestones we fully believe she will reach–but so often in a way we didn’t anticipate.

    You’re right, too, that failure isn’t what our society makes it out to be. Failure is opportunity. Failure tells you where you can grow, try again, improve, redirect, refocus. It is not a dead end.

    And I’m sure your son will take so much pride in his new room, because he’s part of it from the very beginning. What a great experience!

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