Fail->Safe Studios: Part One

Two full years ago, a small team from the Youth Ministries family, including teenagers, staff, volunteers, and parents, jumped into a project funded by the Texas Methodist Foundation called the Innovation Lab. We began with research, interviews, demographic data, and deep dives into the hearts of the young people in our midst and respond.

As we listened, we heard stories of anxiety, stress, hopelessness, of fear. We heard, over and over again, the suffocating reality of teenagers who felt paralyzed by the fear of failure, and not just large-scale failure, but any failure. We realized that the young people around us carried a shared fundamental belief that if they failed at anything, they were failures.

And failure was not acceptable. Heck, even B+’s weren’t acceptable. While all the parents in our community would articulate that their desires were for their teenagers to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society, while they would say that it was fine for them to make mistakes as long as they were trying their best, their children had received a different message.

I would take a moment here and repeat something I often say to those that bemoan and villainize teenagers: children learn the things we teach them.

While parents may articulate a generous, forgiving version of parenting, their children have not been learning it. One of the parents in our team had a lightbulb moment looking at a map of the city we were using for demographic study. She realized she drove across town, past half a dozen grocery stores, to go to the best grocery store, that she drove her kids to the other side of the city to go to the best school for their art, that she took them to the best doctors, the best tutors, the best swim lessons, lunch spots, hair salons, for their entire lives. She did those things because she loves her kids. After all, that’s what she was taught a good mother does. But she never considered what it might be teaching her children:

That only the very best is acceptable.

That since they had the very best tutors and schools and coaches, if they didn’t make the very best grades and teams and get into the very best colleges, they were a disappointment. Since they had been given the very best to start, if they ended with anything other than the very best, they were a failure. And if they succeeded? If they got perfect grades, scored every goal, got into their dream school? Then they had met the bar.

It’s a suffocating, unwinnable way to live, even for an adult. For teenagers, it can be life-threatening.

According to a review of three decades of research in adolescent mental health, teenagers at high-achieving schools (defined as schools with test averages in the top third of all schools), which is almost all of the teenagers in our community “suffer from symptoms of clinical depression and anxiety at rates three to seven times higher than national norms for children their age.” While providing a momentary lapse in the pressure in Spring 2020, the pandemic wound up making problems worse when youth returned to prepandemic pressures in the fall, but with all of the pandemic limitations. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds visiting emergency rooms for mental health reasons was more than 30 percent higher in 2020 than in 2019.

When we finally were able to nail down our issue statement, best summarized as ‘teenagers believe if they fail at anything, they are a failure,’ members of our team, particularly the adults, took it like a punch in the stomach. Our parent representatives recently presented our research to a group of youth parents at our Parent Retreat. They described wide eyes, head nods, and by the end of the presentation, welling tears. Because parents knew it was true, and they heard the profile of a kid that sounded like theirs. Even talking to my co-workers here at FUMC Fort Worth with children, I have seen that process of eye-opening, as they have heard descriptions of suffocating fears, seemingly irrational or outsized anxieties in their children, and behavior in adults, that sounded familiar to their own homes.

So what do we do? Given that we can’t undo the parenting already done, given that simply telling teenagers that it’s ok if they fail clearly isn’t enough, what possible hope and truth could we speak into this place of obvious hurt?

Our teenagers came up with an idea that I would never have, and it has shaped everything we have tried since: what if we asked teenagers to fail, on purpose, at things that don’t matter, and had adults fail alongside them?

That was the origin of Fail->Safe Studios. Check part two next week for the rest of the story.

Kat Bair
Director of Youth Ministries

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