I visited my aunt when I was a gawky long-limbed twelve-year-old. We were going to the Exhibition in Toronto and I was very excited, as were her two small children. In the middle of breakfast I dropped the large china pitcher of milk into my bowl. Cereal, milk and shards of china went everywhere. I looked up at my aunt, sure she was going to scold her clumsy niece, or fuss about how we might miss the train or at the very least scowl. “Oh dear”, she said and fetched a rag to sop up the milk while she picked up the shards. The anticipated scowl was a reassuring smile. I don’t remember what happened next but I do remember my gratitude that she understood it was a mistake, an accident like tripping on an unseen rock.
The incident had a profound effect on how I raised my own children. I took to heart, too, Dr. Spock’s advice that cups or food dropped by babies be treated as a signal that they were finished with their drink or meal. I said “uh-oh”, cleaned up the mess with a smile and lifted the baby down from the high chair. When the children were old enough, I handed them a rag so they could help me clean up, never mind that at first they made a bigger mess. Eventually they knew where the rags were and simply cleaned up the mess. The point was that a mistake was something to be fixed or cleaned up, not a sin. If you were lucky, it was also a learning experience as my favourite English teacher, Miss da Costa, used to say.
This is one kind of attitude that encourages children to take risks. The second is the attitude that praises effort, not ability. We cannot help the tools we were born with but we can help what we do with them; praising a child for the effort they make with their tools is to give them confidence that they can achieve regardless of setbacks. As a teacher of the gifted I saw far too many children who were reluctant to take risks because their academic talents had been praised, but not their willingness to try and then try again after they had made a mistake. The work they had not done was always going to be better than any work they actually did.
The third important attitude to mistakes is to let go of perfectionism. There are times when mistakes are dangerous. I would not want the surgeon operating on my eye to make a mistake with her scalpel or engineers to make mistakes in designing a bridge, however many mistakes are either tools that will further learning or simply trivial. When excellence, not perfection, is the goal a student can use the mistake as a cue to learn something. I’m sure the surgeon practices and makes a good number of mistakes before she is ready for the operating room. A mistake when driving is a cue for me to pay more attention to a certain aspect of my driving. A perfectionist might be panicked by a mistake or try to ignore it; a learner adds it to the information she needs to become excellent at her task.
I once had a student who rarely tried in class; she was talented, had no apparent difficulties, got on well with her peers and teachers and did want to succeed. Try as I might I could find no insight into the cause of her minimal effort until the day she sat down with me and her parents to fill in her high school options form. When she had finished filling it out, her mother took it from her and proofread it, literally dotting I’s and crossing t’s as she reread the form.
As I watched the mother, I reflected that had she left the form alone, the worst that could have happened had her daughter made a mistake would have been that the girl might have found herself in the boys’ gym class or in music instead of art. From that she would have learned to pay attention when she filled out forms. Instead what my student learned was that she could do nothing good enough for her parents. No wonder she was so reluctant to try. Her mistakes were not a learning experience, but an embarrassment.
If you want children and students who happily work and are unfazed by mistakes, praise their efforts not their talent, encourage and teach them to correct their mistakes and let go of your own perfectionism. Ask yourself if your expectations are about your wants or your child’s needs. It is nice to hear your child praised but it is even better so see him happy and confident as he works towards goals he has chosen with the insight that comes from being allowed to learn from his mistakes.