Why I'm challenging my kids to suck at school this year

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As we stare down the barrel of another school year, there's inevitably a lot of focus and attention on how to set your kids up for success. Study habits, tidy rooms, sleep patterns – you name it, and there's a way you can tweak it to help your kids be at the top of their game.

But I've decided to try something different this year. This year, I'm challenging my children to suck at something.

Sure, I want them to do well in school – I'm not a maniac – but I'm also challenging them to try something they're pretty sure they'll be bad at, because if they can suck and survive, they can do anything.

With NAPLAN and standardised testing kicking in pretty much from the moment our kids start school, it feels like they're aware they are being assessed from day one – and most kids naturally care about doing well. I saw it in my Grade One daughter last year; she felt exam stress for the first time at the tender and highly inappropriate age of six.

So as my children – this year in grades 10, Four and Two – embark on a new school year, I've asked them to choose an extra-curricular activity or subject to try that they think they won't do well at.

At first, they thought I was joking, but I soon convinced them I was dead serious. The idea came from my work as a freelance writer. When I started freelancing many years ago, I was naturally terrified of rejection. Nobody likes to fail, right?

But the thing about being a freelance writer is that you don't sell stories and get jobs if you don't pitch ideas to editors. And you can't pitch ideas to editors without the risk of them giving you a hard no.

So one of the great exercises I discovered early in my career was making a game of amassing a large number of rejections as quickly as possible. I set myself the task of getting 100 rejections, and set about pitching editors I never would have had the guts to pitch if I was relying on them saying yes.

Of course, I lost count well before I got to 100 because I also started to get acceptances. And once I hit around the 40 mark, my confidence had grown and I was so busy writing articles that the sting was entirely taken out of those nos. I still have my ideas rejected every single week, but there is zero sting left in it for me.


So I'm passing a version of this exercise onto my children so they can experience their own version. I see the benefits of this as being two-fold.

First, each child will try something new just for the fun of it.

Maybe my bookish 15-year-old will join the volleyball team and find he likes it after all. Maybe my sporty nine-year-old will try playing the saxophone, and find a natural affinity with brass. Maybe my introverted seven-year-old will join any sort of club at school and find she loves meeting new people. But whether they're a good fit with their new activity or not, my kids will get out of their comfort zones and try something new. Win.

Second, there's something liberating about going out intending to be terrible at something. It removes the pressure we often feel, to look like we know what we're doing at all times.

It shows us that it's okay to take risks and try something new, because when the worst thing we can imagine happens – such as being awful at something, or even failing a class – life continues to go on. The world doesn't end, and nobody else even notices.

It's knowledge I wish I had when I was younger. It would have saved me so much worry and anxiety as I made my way in the world, trying to look like I knew what I was doing, and pretend I was okay all the time.

Being brave enough to suck, and knowing you will be all right no matter what happens can make you bullet-proof. Sure, my neighbours may have to listen to some awful saxophone practice, but that's the gift I'm giving to my children this year. I think it's worth it.