Kindergarten teachers are amazing! Mine taught me the very useful skill of raising my hand when I needed the restroom. That came in handy over my subsequent years of schooling. More importantly she opened a whole new world to me by introducing reading and writing—two abilities I cherish to this day.
But I actually don’t remember any of those lessons. I have no recollection of reading my first book, or tracing letters of the alphabet. What has stayed with me, several decades later, is a much headier concept, but one that has had an even greater influence on my success as a human being and parent…she taught me the freedom of embracing failure.
And how exactly does a teacher impart that kind of wisdom to a five year-old who still sucks her thumb?
We made “nothings.”
After passing out sheets of colored paper, Mrs. Ober instructed us to fold them in half. Then we gripped our brand new scissors (the kind with the rounded tips). While we fumbled with the foreign-feeling object in our hands, she cut a meandering jagged line from one side of her paper’s crease to the other, unfolded the paper and showed us her arrestingly strange creation. Then, she prompted us to begin our “nothings.” She gently talked us through the first steps of cutting the paper at the crease. I had older siblings, so for me the cutting was a breeze.
But it was what she said next that made me catch my breath.
“Just cut as you please, and if you make a mistake, no problem. Remember, you’re making “nothings'' so you can’t actually make a mistake.”
I can’t tell you what a truth bomb she dropped on me that day, more than four decades ago. I came outta the womb a rule-follower and people-pleaser and those words, “you can’t actually make a mistake” cast a magical spell on me. I tore into my construction paper like Rodin to a block of marble.
I learned in that moment just how liberating it feels when the fear of failing disappears.
I can’t say that I’ve always welcomed mistakes so bravely as I did that day, but that little nugget of wisdom conditioned me to redirect my thoughts as a young woman and later as a mom to lean-in to failure. Rather than treat it as a forbidden thing that I must avoid at all cost, I recognize, while not always pleasant, failure can lead to real growth.
Einstein famously said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
We can consistently nail the things we’ve been doing for years, or we can bravely take on a challenge. By not fearing failure, we are more likely to succeed.
Let me explain that in practical terms. Have you ever been in a home that is full of precious breakables? Maybe they have little crystal figurines here and there in their absolutely pristine living room. In normal circumstances, I have no issues with bumping into furniture, or dropping dishes, but now my mind is fixated on the fear of breaking something. Suddenly, I’m a klutz. Before you know it, I’m apologizing for breaking an heirloom Waterford candy dish.
So how do we teach our kids about “making nothings'' and tapping into that powerful freedom that comes from embracing failure?
It’s not an easy tight rope to navigate. We don’t want them to aim for failure. On the other hand, when they make a mistake we can have knee-jerk reactions that echo how we were treated as children. Even though my kindergarten teacher was a great example, there were plenty of adults in my life who shamed me when I messed up and reinforced my natural fear of failure. I have done this many times with my own kids. Rather than obsess on that failure, I keep at it.
I am heartened by the inspiring story of Spanx founder, Sara Blakely. She says it was simple reminders from her dad that encouraged her to take risks, eventually founding a billion dollar shape-wear business. He did these important things that I think we parents should all start today:
Every night at dinner, he asked his kids to discuss their failures. Instead of being angry or upset, he would celebrate the failure. “You didn’t fail today? Oh well, better luck tomorrow.” She says that this helped her to reframe her idea of failure. She began to think of failure as the act of not trying rather than an outcome.
If there was a particular situation that caused her embarrassment, shame, or upset, her dad encouraged her to write down the hidden gifts that she got out of the experience. This caused her to see the benefits of setbacks and mistakes, which inspired her to keep taking risks.
Her dad praised her effort, not the result. In other words, when she completed something, he didn’t focus on a good or bad grade, but rather all the hard work that went into it. Again, she learned that it is not about an outcome, but the amount of sweat that someone gives that makes all the difference.
I’d add one more to that list.
4. Admit to your kids when you’ve made a mistake. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. It doesn’t help their self-esteem if they think you’re perfect (That’s a tough yardstick to be measured against.). Express to them that your mistake was not demoralizing, but a chance for growth and learning. When you repeatedly model resilience, they will take to it like ducks to water.
We are certainly not raising “nothings.”
We’re raising incredible young people with brave spirits. Let’s foster those spirits to soar by lovingly encouraging them to fail forward again and again. Try out the “How did you fail today?” conversation at dinner tonight and let us know how you did. You can connect with us on social media on Facebook and Instagram and join our growing community of intentional parents just like you.
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