Last updated on August 26, 2021.
As part of our Time Out series, JEMS founder Christine Ma-Lau 劉馬露明 teaches us about why it’s important with children to create some space to make mistakes.
Making mistakes is part of life. You may remember the Miss Universe blunder last year when the presenter gave the crown to the wrong contestant, only to have to retract the prize moments later and give it to the correct winner. Like many who have come before him, he was absolutely lambasted on social media afterwards for making a mistake. I believe in striving for excellence and that includes preparing and doing everything to the best of our ability. But I think there’s something wrong when we are only striving for perfection.
Let’s create some space to make mistakes
There’s a difference between excellence and perfection. Excellence, to me, denotes the attitude and effort that goes into the final product and he outcome is a result of that attitude and effort. Striving for perfection, however, only takes the final product into consideration, and doesn’t leave room to appreciate the mistakes that may have been made along the way. Today it seems we are slow to compliment but quick to judge; slow to praise what is right but quick to point out what is wrong. We jump quickly at the end result without taking into account what has gone into it.
Some of us do this with our children too. They might come home from school with a quiz they got 18/20 questions correct and we will focus on the two wrong responses, rather than the 18 correct answers.
The problem with striving for perfection
1 – Making mistakes is learning
One problem with striving for perfection is that it doesn’t leave room for mistakes. But a big part of learning is the iterative process of making mistakes and learning from them. Three steps forward, two steps back. In the words of Thomas Edison, who took 10,000 tries before he invented the lightbulb, “I haven’t failed. I have merely found 10,000 ways that work”. So when your child comes home with mistakes on his dictation paper, it’s an opportunity for learning, not for shouting. It’s not an excuse to make the same mistakes again but genuine mistakes can propel us forward to learn and to improve.
2 – It discourages people to try new things
Striving for perfection makes people scared to try new things. Trying new things, whether it be tackling a challenging math problem or inventing a new machine, requires risk and with it, the possibility of failure. However, if part of the goal of learning is to avoid mistakes, then the natural choice is to avoid anything too difficult and stay within their comfort zones. And so the cycle continues – if you don’t try anything new, you won’t learn anything new. As parents and educators, part of our responsibility is to stretch and challenge children to enable them to grow and develop. Part of the process is giving them new challenges that will likely result in a mistake or two.
3 – It impedes developing the growth mindset
Lastly, striving for perfection impedes us from developing the growth mindset. Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck talks about the importance of lifelong learning through developing the ‘growth mindset’ – the belief that our capacities can increase with being stretched. It’s about growing and learning, not about achieving perfection.
So the next time your child makes a mistake, take the time out to appreciate their effort in trying, to recognize that it’s an opportunity to learn from the mistake, and to celebrate how it will help them develop the growth mindset. Oh, and don’t forget to do the same with yourself when you stumble!