I have to give credit of this title to Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. If you’ve not read this book or other articles written by Ms. Lahey (several published in the New York Times and the Atlantic), I highly recommend checking her writings out! She is very much aligned with Montessori’s philosophy and approach to Help Children Learn to Help Themselves!
In Montessori, we have a very friendly attitude to making mistakes, because this is after all, how we learn! Rarely does anyone do anything perfectly on their first try (or even their 5th or 15th try)! While we all know that professional athletes spend years practicing and improving their skills, we have to remember that for children, there are a multitude of things they also need to practice to get better at: putting on their shoes, zipping up their jacket, sorting and folding the laundry, counting out silverware for the family dinner table, writing their name, reading books…and so much more! We must give children the opportunities to practice tasks (both big and small) over and over again, so that they can work towards developing these skills and master these goals. If on a child’s 1st, 2nd, or even 10th try, we respond to their efforts by saying, “that’s not how you do it” or “here let me do it the right way,” we greatly undermine the child’s efforts and we inadvertently send the message, “you’re not capable.” Too often then, if the child is hearing or receiving messages of “that’s wrong,” they give up trying and/or are afraid to try because they think making a mistake is “bad.”
Instead, when we, the adults, adopt a friendly attitude to error, we can give the child messages such as, “its ok, just try again,” or “you’re not able to do that YET, but with practice, you will get better,” or “its ok, you’re still learning.” So next time your child spills milk, or has put his pants on backwards, or comes home with misspellings on her paper, you can recognize the child’s efforts by saying, “you’re really trying hard and learning how to do this.” Or using the aforementioned examples, give specific praise to what went well: “you cleaned up that spill, now no one will slip,” or “the outfit you chose is very unique, I can see you did it all by yourself,” or “I can see from your handwriting you have been practicing your ‘r’s’.”
When our children make mistakes and we instead respond with messages of support, we are telling them “they are capable,” “they can do hard work,” and “mistakes are ok, it’s how we learn!” And to really drive this message home, model it yourself! It’s so great for children to see that even adults make mistakes, “oops, I didn’t cook this properly and it got burnt, I’ll have to try again,” or “I forgot —, oh well, that’s ok, we all make mistakes sometimes.” Or for those parents that tell me their cursive is not very good, what better time to practice with your child and say, “I’m really trying to make my cursive writing look neater, I have to slow down and practice this more!”
When children receive these messages, they are much more open to learning new information, to trying new experiences, and they are developing life-long skills of independence, confidence, and resiliency!