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Taking stock of kids' failures, achievements

With two parents who met in the newsroom and made a living from asking people questions, my kids are no strangers to being interviewed.

"How was school?" we'd ask our two sons, with the eagerness of wire agency journalists door- stopping world leaders, as we walked them home from school.

"Any homework?" we'd inquire, with the urgency of business correspondents asking for flash estimates.

The barrage of Very Serious Queries continue throughout the day: Have you had your shower? Are you hungry? When's the next math test? Is your school bag packed? Isn't it time you stopped reading and went to bed? Ignoring our work training, we ask closed questions and hardly give our respondents any time to articulate themselves.

There is one question I love asking, however, above all.

At the end of each day - usually while we're stuffed and picking at the remains of our zi char dinner or driving home after a tiring excursion - I'd say: "Okay, what was one success and one failure you experienced today?"

We take turns to answer, with the agreement that certain rules be observed: there are no right or wrong answers; nobody passes any comments while someone is speaking; nothing is too trivial to mention; and it's perfectly fine to have nothing to say.

When one of us names his or her success, our entire family of four say: "Yay!" We offer words of encouragement, allowing ourselves to enjoy our little moments of glory.

Mostly, it's mundane stuff. "I wrote 500 words of a story!" I might say, to approval from my menfolk. Or my younger son Lucien, seven, might proudly proclaim: "I swam laps with my friend Sean at the pool" - knowing we'd appreciate the victory all the more because bad weather kept us from swimming lessons for weeks.

Occasionally, there is exciting news: a child gets selected for an intra-school competition or an adult clinches a contract for a fascinating project. But the reaction from us is the same. After all, what matters is the value that the individual ascribes to his or her ventures, not the judgment the rest of us impose.

All too often, we run the risk of overlooking or belittling our accomplishments, reaching breathlessly for the next goal without taking stock of how far we've come or celebrating each step we've taken. It's easy for me to forget that certain things I take for granted may be challenging to my kids or that what comes naturally to my elder son might be a struggle for my younger one. By carving out a little time each day to hear each family member's everyday successes, we learn a little more about one another and the things that are meaningful to us.

We learn mutual respect and not to sniff at the capabilities and feats of others. Even if that feat is finally reading the first Harry Potter book, one slow chapter at a time, over many days. Or tying shoelaces. Or getting out of bed to take a shower at 5.30am, before the alarm clock for school goes off.

Whatever gives, right?

Still, it is the failure part of the question that I am more interested in. Everyone loves a winner. There are days when the kids volunteer a second success because they've had such a good day. But failures are harder to admit, much less announce. In a society where young achievements are almost considered mandatory - in an age of social media where many parents happily post updates about their offspring's academic awards and creative endeavours - a simple conversation about the things you fizzled out at can make all the difference.

I listen to my kids talk about their failures in the same way that I listen to their successes - with curiosity and support. The daily recounting of failures is not for me to jump in with solutions or "learning points". Nor is it a time for stewing in regret and self-pity. Asking my kids what they saw as their failures is my way of making ordinary and unremarkable the notion that not everything has to be mastered on one's first try.

When we fall into the habit of looking at what we couldn't manage, couldn't change or couldn't have, we are routinely benchmarking for ourselves which are the goals worth striving for, which we feel compelled to pursue and which are the ones we can happily do without. I believe no amount of parental steering and nudging should decide these currents in life for you.

For a while now, when asked about his daily failure, Lucien has been citing that he has not been working on his creative writing.

"It's not too late to change that," we tell him in a neutral tone. "The day's not over." Or, "Try again tomorrow," we might suggest.

The conversation drifts in a different direction and that's that. Yesterday, however, he quietly boots up his computer and types a new title and new paragraphs. And my heart beats "Yay!" for his triumph.

• Clara Chow is the author of Dream Storeys (Ethos) and co-editor of WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 05, 2017, with the headline 'Taking stock of kids' failures, achievements'. Print Edition | Subscribe