Samuel Wong had expected to do well in his first swimming test, having practised at home in the condominium’s pool. But when he arrived at the venue of the test, the 10-year-old began to worry.
For a start, it began at 8am—a lot earlier than he was used to—which meant that the pool was cold. All the other boys were taller. And when the test started, the pool got really crowded.
Used to swimming in a near-empty pool in the late afternoon, Samuel now found himself overwhelmed by water splashing into his face, kicked up by swimmers ahead of him.
As he passed the halfway mark, he began to struggle. “You can do it!”, the coach shouted. But Samuel felt he couldn’t. As he floundered, he cast a glance at his father, Jason, at the side of the pool.
“I saw the fear in his eyes,” recalls Jason. “He wanted to give up, but he didn’t dare to because the coach was telling him to go on. As he looked at me, I knew he was asking me for permission to fail.”
Jason walked towards the side of the pool and signalled to his son to get out. The coach looked on disapprovingly, and the other parents must have wondered: “Why give up so easily?”
But Jason knew his son better. Samuel had given his all. He led his trembling son away to a corner, where the boy sat down and started to sob in disappointment. “It’s okay,” he told his son. “You can always come back and try again. Daddy doesn’t even know how to swim. So you are already much better than Daddy.”
The next time, Samuel passed.
(Anti-clockwise, from left) Jason, Donna, Samuel, and Sarah.
Why Failing Is Important
Many young people in Singapore struggle because they are under great pressure to succeed, notes Jason, the Board Chairman of Focus on the Family (Singapore). Some may not even have failed before, having been protected from failure, so when they do ultimately fail, they may feel so devastated that they give up completely.
“Must I be successful every time and all the time?” Jason asks rhetorically. “Why must we do well in every exam? Can I just fail once? Why can’t I get a break this time and do better next time?”
Children, he points out, should not be defined by their exam marks. While success is highly valued in Singapore, the Bible doesn’t seem to give it the same prominence. In fact, God’s Word is full of accounts of people who failed badly—and repeatedly. Many of the people listed in the Hall of Faith in Hebrew 11, for example, were failures. Even Peter, one of the most loyal disciples of Jesus, betrayed his Lord at the most critical moment.
“Must I be successful every time and all the time? Why must we do well in every exam? Can I just fail once? Why can’t I get a break this time and do better next time?”
Yet all these people were forgiven and redeemed by God to fulfil His purposes. Peter was forgiven and commissioned by Jesus (John 21:15–19), and eventually became the leader of the disciples.
In the same way, parents need to give their kids permission to fail. “That builds resilience,” says Jason. “You will learn to rise up only if you have fallen. And if you keep falling and rising up, over time you will learn resilience. You will learn how to ‘fall forward’.”
On the other hand, if children are overprotected, they will not learn to cope with crises and troubles later. “If we always quickly pull them up, then when we are no longer around, they won’t know what to do,” says Jason. “They need to have their own experience of picking themselves up.”
It’s Okay to Cry
Jason has tried to make failure part of his parenting, resisting the temptation to pick his children up every time they fall—literally. When Samuel was younger, he would try to drill into his son the idea that every time he fell, he should try to get to his feet on his own.
Once, he says, Samuel fell but didn’t get up. Worried, Jason quickly walked over—“but not too quickly so that I wouldn’t look too anxious”, he admits. He then asked his son: “What are you supposed to do when you fall?”
Instead of giving the usual answer—“I get up” —Samuel replied: “I cry!”
Jason smiles at the recollection. “Through this episode, I learnt that when we fall, we may not get up straightaway, and it is okay to cry at times.” So, instead of telling Samuel to get up, Jason decided to sit next to his son and comfort him. “Sometimes it’s okay not to get up, and sometimes we cry,” he told Samuel as he wiped his tears. “But after we cry, what should we do?”
“When we fall, we may not get up straightaway, and it is okay to cry at times.”
Samuel looked at his dad and replied: “After we cry, we get up.” Jason then stretched out his hand and helped Samuel get back up.
A former prison officer, Jason has seen even hardened prisoners cry. “It’s okay to cry,” he says earnestly. “Life is tough.”
(From left) Sarah, Samuel, Donna, and Jason.
Learning to Let Go
Parents can find it hard to let their children fail because deep down, they are afraid to let go of their kids. They want to protect their offspring from harm and pain, and ensure that their kids will be successful and happy.
Ironically, however, overprotective parents will only make it harder for their kids to succeed when they grow up.
Jason himself, for example, can’t swim because his mother didn’t allow him to learn. She feared that he would drown. But Jason paid the price in National Service, when everyone was forced to swim. “I suffered in NS,” recalls Jason with a laugh. “While my mum was protecting me, she was causing me harm in the long term.”
Overprotective parents will only make it harder for their kids to succeed when they grow up.
Letting go, he stresses, prepares children for the future. “A child learns to walk by falling. We need to let them fall now so that they will learn and grow. If we’re overprotective now, they will not learn to face challenges when they grow up.”
Fathers have a special role in this aspect of parenting because they tend to protect children differently from mothers. “General research shows that mums protect the kids now by making sure they don’t hurt themselves, whereas dads protect them by preparing them for the future,” says Jason.
God Is in Control of Our Children
While letting children fail is difficult, what helped Jason and his wife Donna was the realisation that their children weren’t really theirs to begin with. “We are only stewards,” he says. “God created them and designed them. My wife and I are only the factories.”
That simple truth led to two other truths that underpin their approach to parenting: God is in control of their children’s lives, and He loves them more than they ever can.
Psalm 139:13–16 captures these truths in the psalmist’s praise for God’s creation of him:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
For Jason, watching his children struggle through pains, trials, and failures in life—such as falling ill, failing their exams, being hurt by others—is a constant reminder that only God is in full control of their lives.
God is in control of our children’s lives, and He loves them more than we ever can.
“As parents we want to control everything,” observes Jason. “We want to take over their situations and numb their pain, so that we don’t have to watch them cry and suffer. When they are ill, we want them to heal quickly. But we can’t control all this. We need to hand them over to God. Only He is sovereign and in control. And He loves my children more than I do.”
(From left) Jason, Sarah, Donna, and Samuel.
God Has a Plan for Our Kids
As a former prison officer, Jason has seen the power of God’s redemption, with God’s grace turning around even the most hardened criminals. He has tried to apply this lesson in his own parenting, especially in the area of his children’s studies. He says: “In Singapore, exams are often seen to determine a child’s future. We equate failing in exams with being a failure in life. But it’s never true. Everything can be redeemed.”
One of the most-often quoted verses from Proverbs is 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” But, Jason stresses, it is important to know which “way” parents are to train up their children.
“A friend pointed out that we are to train up a child on the way that he should go, in the way the God wants him to go, not the way I think he should go,” he says. “If I’m training him in the way I want him to go, then I’m really just passing my dreams for myself to him.”
“We equate failing in exams with being a failure in life. But it’s never true. Everything can be redeemed.”
Jason found himself tested on these ideals when his daughter Sarah struggled in school. She had been doing well when she was younger, but didn’t get very good results during her junior college days. Sarah was very down, and Jason tried to comfort her and assure her that her destiny was not tied to her exam results.
He recalls: “I chose to believe that God can make her achieve far more than I myself could imagine, and instead looked at what talents and gifts He had locked up in her. My role was to help her discover these talents and gifts.”
Focusing on his daughter’s strengths, Jason encouraged her to consider working with children, in counselling, or psychology, citing her interests and experience. But he avoided pushing her, and let her choose. Eventually, she decided to become a speech therapist working with children. That, he believes, was what God had designed her for.
“That’s the role of a parent,” says Jason. “To collaborate with God and help our children discover their gifts and talents as they were created by God. God is the one who brought them into the world, we shouldn’t try to take over His role. Our dreams are not better than His dreams and His plans for them.”