For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed reading anything I can find on the life of Abraham Lincoln. Historians tell us that once his stepmother taught him to read, he read everything he could get his hands on. Every night after his chores, he would read by firelight long into the night with his long legs stretched out in front of the hearth. His love for reading and learning enabled him to become a lawyer without formal education. After becoming a lawyer, Lincoln traveled from one small town to another throughout Illinois on the court circuit. In those days, lawyers weren’t needed as often nor paid as much, so Lincoln had to travel to make a living. During this time, Lincoln became interested in politics, ultimately becoming the sixteenth president of the United States.
What fascinates me about Lincoln’s life is how he dealt with failure. One of his first jobs was Postmaster in New Salem, Illinois. In those days, people who received letters also had to pay postage costs. Lincoln took great care delivering the mail, but people in his community were poor, so he often gave them credit when they didn’t have the money. The people loved and respected Lincoln for his willingness to help, but he was responsible for all debts owed at the end of the year. When Lincoln left the position a few years later, Lincoln took full responsibility and for years made payments until the debt was paid. He never blamed the people who hadn’t paid.
During this same time, he met Ann Rutledge, whom Lincoln deeply loved; tragically, Ann died of Typhoid Fever. Lincoln was devastated. Many friends didn’t think he would recover from this loss, but he did.
Later, Lincoln went into partnership to run a general store, but after a few years, they closed because they couldn’t make a go of it.
When he became a lawyer, his first attempts at opening law offices with a partner failed. His first attempts at running for office failed. Even after being elected, he failed to be re-elected several times during his career. Yet none of this stopped him from becoming president
Why was Lincoln able to keep moving forward with so many failures? How does anyone who has experienced persistent failures in his life learn to succeed? Most importantly, as fathers, how do we teach our children to deal with failures so they don’t defeat them?
First, we need to embrace the guiding principle that Lincoln applied though out his life: when we fail, the attempt failed, not the person. In other words, we will attempt and fail, but that does not mean that, as a person, we are failures. Our children’s self-worth will whither when they believe that since they tried and failed, they must be a failure. Children who believe this give up, stop trying, and often never try anything new again. With no one to encourage or teach them anything different, their dreams can die inside them.
Our children need fathers who help them understand that failure is a part of life. Failure often teaches us what doesn’t work. Failure teaches us what not to do the next time and what we need to learn to succeed. Failure often pushes us to seek help and learn from others if we want to realize our dreams.
Our children also need to know that it’s OK to fail. Failing to make the perfect grade or the team, or get the job, does not mean they lose value or your love. Teaching them that performance does not earn a father’s love is vital. Tell them and show them your love for them is secure.
Unfortunately, too many fathers grew up feeling like failures because they never heard the message, “You are loved regardless of your performance.” However, now is their chance to break this unhealthy cycle with their children through intentional words of affirmation, appreciation, and affection.
Our children face criticism daily, and as they grow into their early teens, they become very critical of themselves. They don’t think they look good enough, sing well enough, or play well enough to succeed. That’s why they must know that you believe in them and love them no matter what. Your consistent words of affirmation, appreciation, and affection changes how they see themselves. They are young, insecure, and need our encouragement, especially as they become young adults. So let your child know today that you believe in them no matter what. Assure them that your love for them doesn’t change, whether they pass or fail that math class.
Help them to understand that failure is life’s teacher. Help them to learn and grow from it, but never embrace failure as who you are.
Most of us are familiar with the sign on the used car lot that reads, “As Is No Warranty.” That may be true for cars, but the message we must give our children should read, “As Is FULL Warranty.” No matter what, you love them. If they understand this deep in their hearts, our children will learn how to fail forward.
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