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Why Giving my Daughter Permission to Fail Helped Her Succeed

I wanted her to do well. What I wanted even more was to change her perspective.

fatherly logo Great Moments in Parenting

Welcome to Great Moments in Parenting, a series in which fathers explain a parenting hurdle they faced and the unique way they overcame it. Here, Adam a dad from Atlanta, Georgia, explains the excellent a-ha moment he had with his daughter when they were playing basketball. 

My daughter was probably about eight years old. She was trying to play basketball on the court. She had typically had a lot of problems getting the ball in the basket. Her upper body strength may not have been what it needed to be. She was too short, really, and she couldn’t get that ball up there. Either she couldn’t go high enough or it went wide.

I’m certified in the Feldenkrais method of exercise therapy and it’s given me a lot of insight in how to redirect people’s learning processes. I’m sure it informed my choice in how I approached the problem. I didn’t want to tell her ‘don’t give up’ or ‘push harder’ or ‘keep trying.’ So I changed the goal for her.

She was about to give up and I said, ‘Do one more thing for me before you quit. I want you to take 20 shots at that basket, but I want you to miss. I don’t want you to make any of the baskets.’ But I said, ‘You can’t just miss. You have to just barely miss. And if you get it in, you lose.’ I don’t know why, but she went ahead and did it. After only a couple of shots, that ball started going in.

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She was surprised. I think it helped her. She did go on to play basketball with other kids in a league, and she did just fine, and that was great. But I knew why it worked — and I don’t think she did, although maybe she knows why now. She’s almost 20 now. But it worked because first of all, we took the shame out of the whole activity. She was supposed to fail. So if she failed to fail, she would succeed. Basically, she was either going to succeed or she was going to succeed.

Sometimes when we try to achieve a goal, there’s a whole lot of baggage attached to that, and I just took the baggage away so all she had to focus on was the task. If my daughter had to shoot a goal, and she failed, it would change what kind of person she is to her, it said something about who she was as a person, and if she was successful. I knew she was susceptible to that kind of thought process because I’m susceptible to that kind of thought process. By telling her she had to just barely miss the goal, that’s such a strange thing to do that she couldn’t attach it to any emotional resonance in herself. It was just weird.

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Like, why would you try to just barely miss? So she was completely focused on the actual activity. And because she wasn’t a fantastic basketball player, she couldn’t just barely miss. Instead, she got it in, because you have to be really good to just barely miss the goal, but if you’re not that good, you’re going to get it in.

The Feldenkrais Method examines a person’s ability to understand their own capacity by taking away everything except for the idea of functional movement. The method has people engage in some kind of movement task — like reaching, twisting, or turning, and adding some kind of examination to that which is curious, patient, and tends to have no goals attached to it. If that activity is done curiously, it takes away all the stress. It’s such a strange movement, just like the basketball goal thing, that you get really interested in exactly what it is you’re doing. When you start paying attention to what you’re doing as opposed to who you should be, amazing things can happen. When you come out of that exploration, you find that your body image has changed, you feel different, you walk different, and you can do different things.

It changed everything. It changed the way she looked at the goal and the way she thought about using her arms and her body and it worked. I was really pleased that it worked. It didn’t necessarily have to, but I’m really happy that it did.

Basketball has never been a huge part of her life or anything like that, but she was on the court and she was frustrated that she couldn’t get the ball in. So it was a great moment for her. I just had an insight and I was able to sufficiently create a lesson that I didn’t have any attachment to, whether she got that in the goal or not.