A little failure leads to a lot of learning
By Samantha Rich, Catholic Outlook, July 2011
No child enjoys making mistakes or failing, but many child development and education experts say failure is a crucial part of learning.
More and more often today we are hearing the phrase “helicopter parents” used to describe modern parents. According to Wikipedia these parents are “rushing to prevent any harm or failure from befalling their children and not letting them learn from their own mistakes, sometimes even contrary to the children’s wishes.
Like helicopters, they hover closely overhead, rarely out of reach, whether their children need them or not”. Also referred to as “overparenting”, experts are now worried that children raised in this way are missing out on vital lessons that can hamper their development.
A Boston study of beginning college students found that young adults, whose parents were overly involved in their lives by solving their problems and making decisions for them, were struggling with the demands of college life.
“We have a person who is dependent, who is vulnerable, who is self-conscious, who is anxious, who is impulsive, not open to new actions or ideas; is that going to make a successful college student?” said study researcher Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State
College in New Hampshire. “No, not exactly, it’s really a horrible story at the end of the day.”
While it may be tempting as a parent to cushion our children from the harsher realities of life and to smooth the obstacles in their way, in the long run it seems we aren’t doing our children any favours.
Early Childhood Australia names resilience as an important quality for young children, enabling them to develop confidence and to cope with challenges, a quality they are unable to attain if parents and educators only allow them to experience success and “smooth sailing”.
Is your child resilient?Resilient children:
View the world in an optimistic and hopeful way;
Have learned to set realistic goals and expectations for themselves;
Believe that they have the ability to solve problems and make decisions;
View mistakes, hardships and obstacles as challenges to confront, rather than as stressors to avoid;
Are aware of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but they also recognise their strengths and talents; and
- Are able to define what aspects of their life they have control over and focus their energy and attention on, rather than on factors over which they have little, if any, influence.
According to Dr Robert Brooks of the Centre for Development and Learning, parents and teachers play a vital role in helping their children become resilient and teaching them to accept failure is a key strategy in this development.
If we, as parents and teachers, encourage our children to avoid situations that could lead to failure we are passing on the message that failure is something to be feared and avoided at all costs. The fear of making mistakes and “looking stupid” is one of the main stumbling blocks in childhood resiliency.
Dr Brooks suggests that we approach mistakes as an important ingredient in the process of learning. We can do this in various ways, such as:
While these may seem like simple, common sense strategies the increasing pressure to be successful in life has spilled over into parenting and, what Time magazine labels, a “product development” approach to parenting has emerged. One of the more extreme examples of this approach is the number of companies selling DNA tests that claim to match children with the sports they are genetically programmed to excel in.
These DNA scans are expected to be followed by many more attempts to use genes to enhance athletic performance and focus on pushing children towards pursuits they are most likely to succeed in, rather than allowing the children to choose what they most enjoy or are most interested in.
While such scientific approaches to life may lead to high-performing individuals, critics question whether this is really doing what’s best for the children in the longer term – will they be happy and are we teaching them not to try something unless you know you can succeed and do so quickly?
One of the dangers educational experts point out in allowing children to avoid any experience of failure, is the death of creativity and originality.
According to author and international adviser on education, Sir Ken Robinson, if you are never prepared to be wrong, you cannot be original.
“By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. We stigmatise mistakes and we are now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacity,” he said.
The latest educational research shows that “active learning” is one of the best ways for children to pick up new skills and knowledge. Rather than having students memorise the correct way to do something, in active learning students would be encouraged to experiment on their own to find the best way to do something, and in the process making mistakes and learning from these mistakes.
Studies have shown information and skills students acquire in this way are more likely to be retained and understood at a deeper level than things they have just been told or shown.
Executive Director of Schools, Greg Whitby, is keen to ensure that both teachers and students recognise the importance of risking failure when it comes to learning. He says school systems in general have become too frightened of getting it wrong and, by “playing it safe”, are missing out on making the essential improvements to education that 21st Century students need.
“Failure is as much a part of education as any other life pursuit and yet there is a prevailing culture of wanting to avoid, defend and judge failure. Unfortunately, this message filters down to students,” Greg said. “Teachers, as well as students, need to embrace failure and the making of mistakes as the only way to learn and improve.”
It seems parents and educators would be better served helping children to deal with failure and learn from their mistakes, than attempting to protect them from failure and present them only with winning situations and success. In the words of Dr Weston H Agor of the Intelligence Company: “making mistakes simply means you are learning faster”.
Risk, Resilience and Futurists: The Changing Lives of OurChildren, Robert Brooks PhD and Sam Goldstein PhD, Centrefor Development and Learning
The Growing Backlash against Overparenting, Nancy Gibbs, Timemagazine, 20 November 2009
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