“I want you to flunk your next test,” I said to my daughter. She was in her first year at high school. She was hardworking, conscientious, doing well, and anxious about it.
She had already made the plausible -- although I would argue not the only possible -- hypothesis based on reliable data, that I was a few slices short of a loaf. Nonetheless, this caught her by surprise. Our family had a surfeit of academic achievement; we’re unnecessarily competitive; and she had matriculated into a college’s daycare when she was three: high expectations were implicit.
However, she quickly recovered and returned to the missing-slice hypothesis. “No.” she said.
“This isn’t up for negotiation,” I countered. “I’m telling you -- in fact, I’m ordering you by the power vested in me as your father to flunk your next test.”
“Because I want you to find out nothing bad will happen.”
As it happened, she didn’t flunk any tests, and I didn’t punish her for passing them.
I didn’t want my daughter approaching her schoolwork fearing judgment. I wanted her to learn that the outcome of a test, and not just a school test, but all the trials, contests, evaluations, and inspections we undergo don’t have to be others’ judgment of us: they can be our view of ourselves through their eyes. They’re another source of information. They are a tool of discernment.
One of my important mentors, Bob Lefton, taught that an evaluation that didn’t leave one with at least some uncomfortable truth wasn’t useful enough. Another person can offer a viewpoint I can step up toward in order to see something I might prefer to ignore.
One definition of discernment highly meaningful to me is “perception in the absence of judgment in order to gain understanding.”
A test helps me understand what I have left to learn. That they still make me anxious shows me how much I have left to learn.
Before I sent this, I thought my daughter should get a preview. She responded with this:
I love that! I'm especially cracking up at this line "However, she quickly recovered and returned to the missing-slice hypothesis."
I have actually written about that directive, too as part of an assignment during my first year of my social work degree. Here is my take on it from 2017:
"When I was ten or eleven, my father provided some fatherly advice: “Fail a test, and I will proudly frame that F and hang it over my desk.” The prospect of failing anything terrified me and was becoming a source of stress. My dad wanted me to know that if I failed a test, I would still be the same person worthy of the same amount of his love. He seemed to be saying that he would be more proud of the strength of character he believed it would take for me to intentionally face my fears and fail a test than he would be of any accolades I would bring home just for being smart. Instead of suggesting I work harder to avoid this terrible fate, he had other ideas about what was important. I balked at my dad’s suggestion at the time, but I appreciated and internalized his message."