Wednesday, October 20, 2021

I Have a Problem with Failure

Jeanne Vergeront 
Vergeront Museum Planning 

I have a problem with failure. Let me be more specific about that. I have a problem with how we celebrate failure, especially for children. 

How many times have you heard, or said yourself: children learn from failure, failure is good for children. We say, fail forward with such certainty and confidence that we believe it. How do we know children learn from failure? Or that it’s good for them? 

Yes, failure is a part of life. Mistakes are inevitable. It’s valuable for children to be able to deal with setbacks. Distress or frustration tolerance is an important life skill to master. And fostering protective factors and resilience has life-long benefits. Is celebrating failure the way to accomplish all that? 

Children, as novices in this world, take on many new things every single day: forming words, riding a bike, making friends, learning to read, helping around the house, understanding the physical world. But block towers crash. Estimates are off. A cherished toy is left on the plane. It’s what happens. Children get hurt and they will experience disappointment. Some setbacks are difficult to observe. 

When there is so much to marvel at in children’s urge to play, their eagerness to try so many things, and their delight in their accomplishments, why are we so eager to celebrate their failures? Remarkably, we even ask them to enjoy their failures.  

Our assumptions about children and failure suggest that we underestimate them and their capabilities. When we see failure as a tool for teaching competence, we are not recognizing that even very young children are already competent learners. They are curious and resourceful. They are already exploring, experimenting, learning, and they are ready to move on to something new. We also underestimate children’s capabilities to follow their interests, assess their capabilities, meet challenges, and ask for help when we make their world too narrow, safe, and predictable. Celebrating failure is, unfortunately, becoming an antidote to relentless perfectionism in the lives of too many children. 

I am puzzled about why we are so certain that how we, as adults, view failure would be the same as a child’s experience of failure. I suspect our adult lens on children’s experiences is clouding our perspective. We confidently assume that we know what’s going on for the child when they climb a tree and can’t get down, spill milk, forget to do their homework, or hurt a friend’s feelings. 

We might consider what the possibility of trying something risky, stretching to meet a challenge, learning something new, or accomplishing a hard task feels like to a child. Fascination with what might happen is powerful; a child wonders what will happen if they try this, then what will happen, and then what will happen next? When things didn’t go as we think they should, we assume failure. The child, however, finds new information, a better idea, something else to try, and moves on. Where we see failure, a child finds an opportunity to figure out how a lid snaps closed, how to slow down a bike, how to make-up with a friend, or build a sturdier fort. 

Before labelling something as a failure, we should consider what’s happening for the child. For instance, what does a child experience as a setback? And what does that mean to them? Especially for young children, an adult idea of success or failure is irrelevant. Children don’t know about failure until we teach them about it, often with sharp words, a look of disappointment, or a rush to fix everything. In play, children often incorporate setbacks into a play narrative, a new construction, or the rules of a game. When a child plays, tinkers, or putters, they don’t have a checklist or time frame as adults do in many areas of child development and education. “Shares with a friend.” CHECK. “Carries a bucket of sand without spilling.” CHECK. 

Championing failure implies that we view life as a test. For children, especially younger children, life is practice, not a constant, on-going set of tasks and tests. By celebrating failure, we are judging all the time, placing everyday happenings on a game field of win-lose, success-failure, right-wrong. Is it really helpful to label an effort a failure and add a dose of shame or embarrassment to how a child understands what happened? Lost a mitten? Dropped something down the drain; knocked over the glass vase, didn’t make the team? 

What else are we saying by celebrating failure? There's a message that we value failure over persistence or having new ideas. That adults’ naming failure takes precedence over children understanding and incorporating what they’ve learned, or finding new ways to solve their problems. Ironically, by calling out failure we might just be stigmatizing rather than celebrating it. 

True failure does exist and should not be trivialized. We don’t, however, need to celebrate failure in order to accept that life and learning are seamless ways of wondering, exploring, finding out, and growing. Richard Feynman, 1965 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics reminds us: 

    Being wrong is not a bad thing like they teach you in school. 
It is an opportunity to learn something. 
There are no mistakes, only lessons. 
Growth is a process of trial and error. 

We might fail less and celebrate accomplishments more if we were to create physical and social-emotional environments and experiences for children in museums, classrooms, playgrounds, backyards, and homes that: 
  • Value persistence and having ideas 
  • Highlight open-ended materials and activities 
  • Encourage focus and absorption 
  • Make room for children to choose and follow their choices 
  • Manage expectations and patience 
  • Invite conversation about ideas and what’s happening 
  • Trust children to direct their play, exploration, and learning 
  • Celebrate accomplishments, small and large 
  • Let play happen; in play, outcomes are undefined, consequences are minimal 

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