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How to make it safe for kids to fail

Monday, January 17th, 2011

I had the great pleasure of meeting one of my intellectual heroes, science journalist Ashley Merryman, and seeing her speak about her book, Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children.

In her talk, Merryman passionately spoke to the fact that we absolutely need to make it safe for kids to fail. We live in a culture where parents want their kids to succeed at everything they attempt, without realizing that without making mistakes, it is not possible to take risks and actually reach our full potential.

After Merryman’s talk, I overheard moms discussing this in the ladies’ room. How can we make it safe for our kids to fail?, they were asking themselves. From the urgency in their voices, I could tell that Merryman’s message had hit home.

But even though I’ve been mulling over Merryman’s book, NurtureShock, for over a year now, and have several chapters more or less memorized, I wasn’t sure I knew what the answer was either.

I found a partial answer from a completely unrelated source: marketing mastermind Seth Godin’s blog. Godin points out: “There is no category of ‘does risky exploration, never fails.'”

Yet why do we persistently believe this category exists? Whenever I hear a story about an artist, scholar, or athlete who struggled to find success and acceptance, I never fail to be surprised. Jim Carey lived out of a car and bombed his first comedy gig? Drama coaches told Lucille Ball that she “had no future at all as a performer“? Madeline L’Engle’s first book, A Wrinkle in Time, was rejected by 26 publishers before winning the Newbery Medal? Thomas Edison was told he was “too stupid to learn anything”? Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV reporter because she was “unfit for TV”? Winston Churchill failed sixth grade?

We hear about the successes, but not the failures and struggles. We see the red carpet, the accolades, the public adulation. How would kids know that it’s safe to fail when the media just focuses on the polished final product, not the process of mastery?

One way to communicate to kids that it’s safe to fail is to tell these stories of our heroes’ early failures. If we mess up, it doesn’t mean that we’re not like them. When they were getting started, these heroes really weren’t all that different from us.

Related posts:
Failure is not the enemy
On seriously owning your mistakes
Tips on effective praise from Ashley Merryman
Self-taught heroes: William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind

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