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Mistakes and Self...

Mistakes and Self Esteem: From the Principal’s Office

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; And treat those two imposters both the same …—Rudyard Kipling

While formulating hypotheses, second graders at my school did an activity in which they wrestled with the question of how to eliminate one of the two hypotheses. In the course of the conversation, the idea that a “wrong” answer is just as good as a “right” answer was introduced. (Each can give you exactly the same amount of information.) It is not just a lesson in science and language arts, but a lesson for success in school, in social situations, and in life. “No” may feel bad, but it is actually not worse than “Yes.”

A parent of a kindergartner sent me a speech on “The Importance of Mistakes” by John Cleese. Here is an excerpt:

“The very first nursery story that my mother ever read me was called Gordon the Guided Missile. When Gordon sets it off, it sends out signals to discover if it’s on course, and signals come back. “No, you are not on course. So change it, up a bit and slightly to the left.” Gordon changes course and then, rational little creature that he is, sends out another signal. The missile goes on and on making mistakes, and on and on correcting its behavior in light of feedback, until it blows up the nasty enemy thing.

As a result of making hundreds of little mistakes that could be corrected immediately, eventually the missile succeeded in avoiding the one mistake that would have really mattered—missing the target.

When Edison first produced the light bulb that worked, he explained that he had made more than 200 attempted light bulbs before one worked. “And how,” a journalist asked, “did you feel about all those mistakes?”

“They weren’t mistakes,” Edison replied (calmly, I’m told). “Every failure told me something that I was able to incorporate in the next attempt.”

Our culture has a built-in notion that self-esteem is a function of success, praise, and staying “positive.” Actually, that’s wrong. Self-esteem is a function of enthusiastic struggle, an important part of which is making mistakes. Pursuit of goals that are central to one’s needs, values, and interests and in keeping with the requirements of the environment, builds self-confidence and makes one successful.

Our culture’s obsession with ability is another dimension of our confusion. It is generally understood that ability is the best predictor of success. Not so. Hard work is. Going after something with a will and a willingness to persevere through set-backs—and learning along the way—produces results.

“The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” by Carol Dweck is a Scientific American article making the rounds of our school these days. I recommend it to all who are raising and educating children. In it, she posits two views of intelligence:

… I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners: helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of Intelligence. The helpless ones believe that Intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. …The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else.

It is common for teachers and parents to feel that our job is to build a “positive self-image,” and saying something negative like “No” is to be avoided. This can actually be debilitating by cutting the person off from important data that will lead to good decisions. A much better goal is an accurate self-image. With accuracy as a goal, we keep our eye on the right ball: strengthening the child’s reality-testing mechanism. Learning that “No” is as valuable as “Yes” is a very important lesson. Just as important for your child, is understanding that mistakes are tools for learning—not indicators of poor ability.

Last Month’s column: Literacy and Children: Finding the Magic 

From the Principal’s Office: Lessons on Learning, Life, and Parenting is published bi-monthly. Each column is written by Rick Ackerly, a distinguished educator with thirty years experience in middle and elementary school education, who is currently the Head of the Children’s Day School in San Francisco.

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