My husband and I recently watched "The Pursuit of Happyness." The only thing more stunning than the number of bottoms this man, Chris Gardner, had was the how many times he picked himself up, thought of a solution and moved on. Even more interesting was that his ultimate triumph was not overly celebrated in the film. (WARNING: Spoiler alert.) The final scenes showed Gardner stoically accepting a job offer, calmly walking out onto a busy city sidewalk and tearfully clapping his hands. He didn't tell his internship supervisors that he was living in a homeless shelter with his son, that his wife had left him, that he could barely make ends meet; he just showed up to work each day, did his job and tried mightily to keep his head above water in the hopes of winning a job at the end of an unpaid internship. He didn't look for approval or validation of his struggle from his peers. His motivation was all internal. Given the institutional schooling he surely was brought up in, his reaction to adversity is extraordinary.
In school, learning is a race against the clock, failure is stigmatized and avoided while success is narrowly defined, rewarded and expected. Part of my objection to institutional schooling is the intense focus on success, especially in this No Child Left Behind era. We're forgetting that failure is just as instructive, maybe even more so, than success.
Every day, my 19-month-old son tries and fails at a dozen small tasks. Fast forward a few days and he's mastered a skill that once frustrated him. What would happen if I insisted that he succeed at, say, shape sorting after a prescribed number of "lessons"? Would he learn any more completely, quickly or easily than if I had simply let him keep trying until he figured it out?
Lately, instead of showing him how to do something, I simply say, "Try it a different way" or "Turn [the object]" or "It's getting hard to walk around all those toys. Maybe we should pick some up." He doesn't usually get a "Good job" from us when he complies, either. I just describe what he's doing, saying something like, "You're helping Mommy pick up your toys" or "You got the triangle in the triangle hole." And I feel like it's working. He claps for himself when he knows he's done something well or accomplished a task. I loathe using praise with young children. It sets them up to expect external praise instead of experiencing the internal pride that comes from completing an act, such as cleaning up toys under their feet or seeing for themselves how an object fits, that is meaningful to their environment.
Don't get me wrong. I don't want my children to suffer needlessly. I want my children to be successful. But I also want them to fail so that they learn to pick themselves up, try again and be satisfied with whatever level of achievement they decide suits them. They don't have to be perfect. They don't have to be rich. They don't have to meet federal standards or anyone else's. They just have to be human.