Last weekend, my husband and I took our 2.5 year old daughter to a fun interactive presentation by children’s book author Barney Saltzburg.  Barney explained that when he was growing up, he didn’t get good grades because he didn’t see the world the way his teachers expected.  For example, instead of adding numbers together, he would rather draw pictures from the shapes the numbers made in his imagination.  While he struggled through school, this gift of creativity has served him well in his adult life, as he is a very successful author, musician, artist, and ambassador for the U.S. Department of State’s cultural exchange program.  And, guess what?  He did eventually learn how to do math.  I’ll bet his teachers are proud of him now, as they read his book “Beautiful Oops” to their grandchildren.

What was Barney’s lesson?  Everyone has unique gifts, and seeing the world in a different way does not make a person a failure.  How often do we, as parents or teachers, expect our children to live up to our own expectations, and sharply correct our children when they make mistakes?  What if we just allowed our children the freedom to make mistakes and come up with creative ways to solve them?  What if we presented our children with ideas and let them take those ideas to the next level using their imaginations?  What if we didn’t expect our children to conform to our own ideals and expectations, but allowed them to develop their understanding of the world in their own unique way?  What if we just let go?  Would they be failures?  Would they learn what they need to learn to be successful human beings?

While I’m sure we all agree that kids eventually do need to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, are we making it more difficult for them by squelching their confidence in trying new or difficult tasks?

Lots of kids, and I was one of them, fear making mistakes because of the consequences of embarrassment or even punishment.  A big red “F” on a paper, being made an example, or losing privileges due to not understanding something can psychologically alter a child’s desire of trying.  Kids don’t think of mistakes rationally, but emotionally. They think they’re stupid when they’re really just not aware that a mistake is a learning opportunity and not a dead end.

How we can we teach our young ones that making mistakes can be beautiful, as Barney Saltzburg discovered?

-Don’t punish mistakes.  Simply calling attention to them and encouraging the child to use creativity to solve the problem can help.  Offer assistance only when the child is struggling.

– Remember intelligence does not equal success. Labeling leads to feeling badly about oneself.  Instead of saying “Great job, you’re so smart,” try “You did it! You really used your creativity on this one,” or “Wow, you really paid attention to the details here, “or “You worked really hard on this.”

-Remind yourself and your child that mistakes are just mistakes.  It just means something was missed, and there is always a reason for it.  Looking for the reason and a new tactic is more constructive than punishing the mistake.

What are you doing with your child or students to help boost their confidence in working through mistakes?  I’d love to hear your ideas.