Friday, August 7, 2015

how I've failed my kids

I still have not forgotten the talk our principal gave us on the first day of high school. It was the strangest "pep talk" I have ever heard. He told us we would all fail. He was confident that every one of us in the room would make a mess of something that year—a test, a report, a relationship, a job. Failure is guaranteed because all of us are human. It's only a matter of time.

But failure is only the beginning. When we respond well to failure, it becomes the foundation for success. That's what our high school principal had in mind. Recent studies show that we learn more from failure than anything else. Kids who are told they are intelligent struggle the most to learn new things. Why? They begin to assume that brain power is something that you wake up with in the morning. If a "smart" kid encounters something difficult, they often throw in the towel and decide they don't have what it takes.

The fact is, I have failed my children by telling them that they are smart. Here's how it has played out more times that I can count:

"Mom, I can't get this. It doesn't make any sense."
"I know you can do it. You're a smart kid. Your teacher wouldn't give you an unsolvable problem."
"No, I really can't get it. I've tried and tried. It's impossible. I'm not smart enough."
"That's nonsense. God gave you a good brain and you know it. Just keep trying."

Educational psychologists are now saying that we need to praise kids for their problem-solving skills, their ideas, and their strategies, rather than for their intelligence. These are the tools that have served them well, and will continue to do so when they face harder challenges.

I'm imagining new conversations with my kids:

"Mom, I can't get this. It doesn't make any sense."
"I wonder if there's another way to look at it. What are all the different ways we could try to solve it? What have you tried so far?"
"The problem isn't giving me enough information. I don't even know where to start."
"Let's read it together and brainstorm. I'd love to hear your ideas. Then we can try to break it down step by step. Imagine it's a mystery and we're looking for clues!"

This research is helpful for me, too. In academics it's awfully tempting to think that you don't have what it takes—that your brain is not capable of doing what needs to be done. If your best doesn't seem good enough, don't despair. Intelligence is not fixed. To have tried and failed is to mentally "level-up," unlocking the door for greater growth. If at first you don't succeed . . .

Several years ago I submitted an article for publication in an academic journal. Receiving that first rejection letter felt like a rite of passage. The second journal was kind enough to include a list of constructive criticism with their rejection letter. Most authors have a file full of letters like this. Come to think of it, no one is born writing symphonies or making 3-pointers or solving equations or designing bridges or interceding faithfully or balancing spreadsheets. Everything we know is learned. We all start at zero. And we have to make a lot of mistakes to get from here to where we want to be.

Still not convinced? Check out these videos from Khan Academy. They were my wake-up call today.

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