"There’s Everything Right About It"
I can't remember the last time I fell down. The last fall I remember was more than 30 years ago when I slipped on a patch of black ice while visiting Schloss Neuschwanstein, a castle in Bavaria. But there was, of course, a time when I fell a lot, several times a day, perhaps even several time per hour. I know this is true because I've spent the last couple decades around children learning to walk and falling is an indispensable part of that process.
When I slipped on the ice, I bounced right back up, ashamed for anyone to see me sitting on the ground, not wanting to admit that it hurt, but very young children learning to walk are never embarrassed by their falls. If they are hurt they cry. If they need helping getting up, they ask for it. But most of the time, they bounce right back up as if it never happened.
"If we grow up fearing mistakes," writes Mister Rogers, "we may become afraid to try new things. Making mistakes is a natural part of being human and a natural part of the way we learn. It's an important lesson at any time of life, but certainly the earlier the better. We all make mistakes as we grow, and not only is there nothing wrong with that, there's everything right about it."
I know older preschoolers who have already learned to be ashamed of their mistakes. They are embarrassed when they fall, bouncing back to their feet the way I did in Bavaria, saying, "I'm okay" too quickly and through gritted teeth. The very word "mistake" is so full of negative connotations that even speaking the word aloud can feel wrong. We couch it in cuteness, calling a bloody knee a "Boo boo" or spilled milk an "Uh oh," in our attempt to minimize it. We are loath to admit our own mistakes, often irrationally defending them or seeking to lay the blame at the feet of others.
When we leave children alone to learn in their own way, however, we see that they know there is nothing wrong with their mistakes. Indeed, much of what we call "play" can be viewed as the making of mistakes. The process of building a block tower "all the way to the ceiling" is one of many failures. We fail at somersaults until we succeed. We turn the puzzle piece around and around until we finally fit it into place. We often make our friends cry before we figure out what makes them want to play with us.
We are a mistake-averse society so it's no surprise that our schools tend to be mistake-averse places, which is a real shame because, as Mister Rogers says, making mistakes is a natural part of how we learn. When mistakes are viewed as wrong, we make learning itself shameful. When success is all we celebrate, we are focused more on winning than learning. We grow afraid of making mistakes and therefore afraid to try new things.
Several years ago, I watched an interview with a young woman who was the CEO and founder of a successful small business. When asked for the secret of her success, she answered, "Failure." She then went on to tell the interviewer that every night as her family sat down to dinner her father would ask her and her siblings, "So, what mistakes did you make today?" And then they would celebrate their mistakes because, they were evidence of having tried something new.
Trying something new, not success, should be our highest educational goal.
As theoretical physicists Richard Feynman, a man with an unquenchable curiosity summed up his life "You only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that's the end of you."
What a change it would be if our children could grow up in environments in which mistakes were seen for what they are. What if we all understood that we're here on this earth for this and only this: to learn from our mistakes? What if we all knew there was "everything right about" that?
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