Teach Failure

When my kids get toys, they are usually out of sight before “Thank You” even reaches my ears. So, when I witnessed a young 11-year-old ask his host how to use his goody bag toy, it got my attention. Knowing that the host was busy with her party, the young man persisted patiently for her to show him how his toy worked. When I suggested that he try and figure out how it works, he said “I think I’ll wait for auntie to show me. I wouldn’t want to break it!”. This got my thoughts racing. It turned out he wasn’t the only one waiting either! I wondered why he wouldn’t risk figuring out how to work the new toy and why there were so many (albeit only four) kids waiting to be shown how to use a little plastic circle on a string? What makes them wait so patiently until an adult leads them by their hand to solve a problem? Most of all, what makes an 11-year-old say, he’d rather wait patiently than try to figure something out, lest he fail? What type of problem solvers, critical thinkers and risk takers are we raising?

Isn’t this country known for its risk-takers? Isn’t that what propelled the industrial revolution, the dot-com years, the budding entrepreneurs? Why have we succumbed to the fears of failure to such a degree that our children cannot even think about taking a risk with a dollar store toy? The more I read and observed, the more I realized that we as parents handicap our own kids and then wonder why they don’t excel! As harsh as that sounds, we create a protective world around our children to the point that they cannot even think of stepping beyond the bounds and would rather lay and wait for an adult to show up and carry them over the ledge.

As parents and teachers, we are the ones who should be instilling a desire to face challenges and then fostering the ability to solve them. How? First by understanding what problem-solving is and why it is so important. If our children constantly hear “Don’t do that! You will get hurt!”, they will interpret it as “Don’t try that. You may fail!” Isn’t falling, cutting yourself, fractures all a part of growing up? We can’t try to disinfect our world for the sake of our kids. As parents, we cannot focus so much on what they get right that they forget that being wrong is part of the learning process.

Creativity and problem solving are interrelated, just like creativity and curiosity are. We cannot have great problem solvers if we don’t have curious, self-reliant kids who want to question everything. Inhibition kills creativity and in turn the ability to think or function outside the box. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized author and leader in creativity, education and innovation, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” We as parents and educators need to get in and face problems as well. Kids should see us try and see us fail when we do, and not just see us with the answer book waiting to reel them in. We cannot fly below the radar and shy away from problems and expect creative geniuses out of our offspring.

What we should want for our children is the ability to take apart or put together a toy or piece of furniture by using their synthesizing skills and not just their literary skills. Creativity should be encouraged just as much as literacy is. Perhaps we cannot teach creativity but we sure can hinder its development by feeding solutions and dumbing down problems. Real life situations and real problems should be used to teach rather than prefabricated textbook problems with solutions on the back of the book. My son has been able to help me with innumerable computer issues and I’m glad he is as analytical as he is (thanks to his dad’s genes), but the fact that he can help his dad figure out issues by advising him to try something differently is impressive!

The ability to play by oneself and make up games and rules is an important aspect of growing up without oppressive mental boundaries. This is important because when we train our little ones to create and execute imaginary worlds, it develops their creativity and intelligence. It also encourages them to solve problems and figure things out for themselves. If normal behavior is convergence of ideas then what I’d want for my little ones in today’s society is a divergence of ideas. That is what makes people different; be they Sal Khan or Steve Jobs. Our deen will circumscribe our divergence for us, but if we constantly keep our little guys and gals in sterile sandboxes how can we expect them to think outside of it? Uniqueness, independence of thought, and innovation need constructive criticism as parameters to creative problem solving.
We need to teach our children that falling is part of learning to walk and no one can skip it.

Embracing failure early in life makes risk taking easy. We teach courage alongside creativity when we teach our children to keep the focus on the task rather than the result when they take risks. Most of all risk taking reminds us that the results are completely in the hands of God and He grants success to whom He wills. It also builds humility when we reiterate that only Allah is perfect, which is why He has left so many doors for the correction of errors open for us. As Edison said when he was asked about failing 1,000 times before discovering the lightbulb, ” I didn’t fail 1,000 times. I found 1,000 ways that don’t work.”