It’s OK to be wrong

(Cross-posted at Gifted Exchange)

Over at CBS MoneyWatch today, I have a post on “5 reasons you should fail more often.” This post came out of my experience last week on vacation of doing puzzles with my 5-year-old. I realized he seemed hesitant to try pieces, in part because he viewed trying a piece in the wrong spot as making a mistake — something one wouldn’t want to do. This was obviously slowing the puzzle-doing down considerably. I don’t care about doing puzzles quickly but I do hope my child doesn’t get too hung up on the idea that everything has to be done right the first time. I hope he doesn’t think people are “good” at puzzles and “bad” at puzzles and trying a piece in the wrong spot indicates that you are “bad” at such things.

I’ve written before of Carol Dweck’s famous experiments on praising children for effort rather than ability. When children view their performance on a task as a result of some innate and unchanging characteristic — you’re a smart kid or you’re good at puzzles — they become risk averse. After all, failure would show your label is wrong. So best not to attempt anything too difficult, and put that identity in question. When children view performance as a result of how hard they are trying, however, then failure is less scary. Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough. You can always try harder, whereas you cannot magically become more smart.

So I dutifully spouted such motherly advice as “Look, I’m trying pieces in the wrong place too! That helps me figure out where else they might go! We just have to keep trying. That’s the fun of puzzles!” I praised my kid’s effort and made sure not to say “wow, you are good at puzzles” or any such thing.

But broadly, I have been thinking of other activities that reinforce the idea that trial and error is part of life, and not a case of Error with a capital E. Blogging for different outlets has certainly helped me with this. One of the beautiful things about blogging is I can try lots of different ideas. Some get no attention whatsoever — the blogging equivalent of failing — and some just explode. Oftentimes, I am completely wrong about what people will find interesting. Good to put things out there as concepts before I invest too much time in them.

The Olympics is also a good example of the inevitability of failure (with a little f). The best volleyball teams give up points against good competition. Imagine how many times those divers belly-flopped as they learned those beautiful somersaults! If they failed once and stopped they certainly wouldn’t be competing now. Missy Franklin doesn’t win every heat she enters. In her amazing 2-events-in-10-minutes performance yesterday, she squeaked into the finals in her first swim before winning gold in the second.

How do you teach your children that getting something wrong, or losing, isn’t always, or even often, bad?

Photo courtesy flickr user liza31337

Note: What is Gifted Exchange? It’s a blog I keep in conjunction with the Davidson Institute for Talent Development about gifted education and parenting gifted children. I started writing the blog back in 2005, before I had children (gifted or not) myself. I co-wrote a book called Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds with Jan and Bob Davidson, which looks at how America’s schools are failing their gifted students. I don’t post too often (I’m aiming for once a week or so) but if you’re interested in parenting topics, that’s another spot to continue the conversation.

5 thoughts on “It’s OK to be wrong

  1. What a great topic. I’d love to see more of your ideas for overcoming perfectionism and fear of failure.

  2. I had a similar thought when we started my perfectionist 9 year old on Rosetta Stone. In the program, you learn by trial and error. You get a lot of wrong answers, because that’s how you learn.

    I think it’s good for him to see the upside of being wrong.

  3. I’ve read some articles on the research involving praise and it is so interesting. I have taught for 15 years and this is a daily experience for me. Here’s what I’ve noticed, “Good Job” and “You’re so smart” and “Good Idea” are all very lazy forms of praise. Much more effective is pointing out specific strengths, “I see you drew a cloud, a dinosaur, and, oh look, an orange plant.” Or for older kids, “The examples you chose from the text really back up the thesis statement.”

    Also, from a teacher’s perspective, the kids who have been told they’re smart are super annoying because they are lazy as all get out and they are constantly trying to correct the teacher. I challenge you to find something more annoying than being repeatedly corrected by a twelve year old.

    I much prefer the students who have been told to work hard and that their education is their responsibility. They get their work done, are more receptive to other people’s ideas and they are a pleasure to teach.

  4. Your site ate my first comment but I’ll try again 😉

    This is something we REALLY struggle with at our house – this is my personality to a T (I hate failure) and it’s already clearly the way my 2.5yo approaches things.

    Watching Olympic cycling gave us a great example, though – when the cyclists fall down, they get right back up and keep going, fast, until they catch up again. My daughter picked up on that pretty quickly.

    But yeah, we’re trying to find lots of opportunities to show her we try stuff and aren’t always good at it.

    Re: Kelly’s point, I agree that telling a kid they’re smart is lazy praise. However, I’d also like to say that I think it’s ok for a kid to correct a teacher (respectfully) if they’re wrong. I think the key is teaching them how to do that. I’d rather not raise kids to be quiet, obedient sheep who always assume that the teacher MUST be correct/right.

    1. Yes, I completely agree and I do appreciate it when kids catch my genuine errors. I usually thank them for paying attention! But I’ve had a few over the years who cross the line and it becomes tiring.

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