“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” — Mahatma Ghandi
They say mistakes are hard. You know what’s harder? Trying to think of a single thing you’ve ever learned without making one. Which, of course, makes thinking mistakes are bad patently ludicrous. If humans can’t learn, grow, and evolve without making them surely they’re not all bad, and they’re certainly not worthy of being the inspiration for so much human fear, shame, and self-loathing.
Lately I’ve been watching my eight-month-old grandson explore the world. Every task he masters is preceded by a series of unsuccessful attempts. Of course I’ve observed this with my own kids. The mistakes don’t hamper them one bit. They’re simply put into the mix of information young minds are busy gleaning to figure stuff out.
Letting our kids retain that freedom to make mistakes was an important part of our homeschooling. That meant we didn’t “correct” them when they did things like write letters backwards, make up their own spelling, put their shoes on the wrong feet, or put their clothes on inside out. When they asked for answers or help, answers or help were given, but otherwise, they were free to experiment and explore. What some may find remarkable is how reliably they understood when they were making errors. At that point it was their choice whether to keep trying out solutions or ask for assistance. As Gandhi pointed out, that freedom to make mistakes is what gives freedom its value.
It may seem counter intuitive to our schooled brains, but mistakes do more than enhance executive function and critical thinking. They can also boost self-confidence. When kids don’t get the message that mistakes are bad, they don’t focus on them as roadblocks or signs that they’re not good enough or smart enough. Rather, mistakes are enticing challenges, part of the process of learning about something. Grades, correcting, and verbal judgments, even positive ones, can distract from that process.
There’s a lot of talk these days about “letting kids fail,” which isn’t exactly what I mean. Mistakes are not failures, simply unavoidable occurrences for anyone who’s trying to create or do anything. Some are more consequential than others, but once a person gets hamstrung by fear of mistakes, freedom and well being fall by the wayside. The most productive responses to making mistakes are to try again, and/or carry the knowledge gained forward into life. We make that easier for kids if we avoid shaming, embarrassing, or otherwise discouraging them from making mistakes by grading, correcting, or judging their efforts.
That’s not “letting kids fail,” it’s respecting their abilities, and giving them freedom.