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  • Kathryn R. Biel

To Err is Human: Finding Resilience in our Mistakes

The other day, I was working with some students, teaching something new. It wasn't hard per se, it was just new. One of the students--the strongest of the group--stood in the middle, afraid to move. Afraid to try. With encouragement, she finally gave it a whirl. And then immediately berated herself that it wasn't "good."

Meaning, it wasn't perfect.

And she didn't want to try again because (in her words) "it was bad."

I had to put the brakes on the whole thing to give the group a pep talk. It's a pep talk I give almost every single day. Actually, I do give it EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. It's about learning. How we learn. That people don't learn by being perfect; they learn by making mistakes. As long as you know the mistake you made, your brain starts rewiring and you are able to correct in the next trial.

You literally learn by doing the wrong thing.

But a trend I've noticed lately (and not a good trend, like less-plucked brows or leggings) is that children don't know how to fail. They don't know how to take a risk and try and NOT be successful. They expect to be perfect out of the gate.

And I think we're making our kids this way.

We literally don't let them fall. When I was a kid, almost everyone I knew had a scar somewhere on their face from falling. Mine's on my chin, the result of falling into a rusty pole while "ice skating" in the babysitter's back yard. I was lucky--my mom worked for a plastic surgeon at the time, so the four-inch-long scar is barely noticeable. But I was three or four, outside playing with about six older kids, and no adult in sight (the babysitter was inside the house). We were racing around the poles on the ice in our boots, and as I turned the corner, I fell right onto the pole. In all honesty, I remember it feeling like I'd dinged my funnybone, only on my face. It wasn't until someone turned around and saw the blood and screamed that I even started crying.

But at least I was outside, moving with a freedom and abandon that I don't think kids feel anymore. As a school-based physical therapist, I teach kids how to move. I challenge their muscles and their motor planning and their balance.

And overwhelmingly, I hear whines and cries that, "I can't do it. This is hard." Much of the time, it's before they even start moving. Kids are so terrified of failing (which in their mind is defined as not being perfect or being able to accomplish it the first time) that they can't move. Pretty much paralyzed.

Then, there are the tantrums--the whining and crying and yelling--because something is hard. Task avoidance is huge. Disturbingly, disconcertingly huge. Because what it's creating is a whole passel of little people with HUGE amounts of anxiety. Current statistics from the CDC put the rates of (diagnosed) anxiety over 7% in children 3-16. That's actually diagnosed anxiety and doesn't include the number of children who show anxious behaviors without a diagnosis.

Clinical anxiety is no joke. It's paralyzing. In a moment of anxiety, the working memory shuts down and the IQ drops 10-15 points. Someone in a state of anxiety literally CANNOT learn something new. But I fear we're CREATING this in some of our kids.

It starts from the moment we bring our children home from the hospital. We don't let them move about and explore. As babies, we keep them in containers to keep them safe. We don't put babies on their bellies because they might die. Or they don't like it. Or because we don't want to sit on the floor and play with our babies, entertaining them so they forget they don't like being on their bellies. We babyproof everything so they don't climb or open or mess anything up. We carry our kids everywhere because they might get into something. We don't turn our children loose in the neighborhood to play for hours every day because they might get kidnapped. We entertain them by sticking a screen in front of them.

We spend time creating a perfect life on social media instead of living a perfectly messy life. We're trying so hard to make them happy that we forget that happiness comes from within. We can't make our children happy by doing everything for them. They have to try--and fail--and succeed to be able to find that innate happiness that should be so integral to childhood.

We're spread so thin, thinking we have to have it all. Annabel Crabb summed it up best with this quote:

"The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one's children as if one did not have a job."

And in some ways, we're doing SUCH a good job at it that our kids don't see us fail. They don't see the messes and the misses. They don't realize that with every minute, we're telling ourselves that this is impossible, muttering it over and over under our breath, but moving forward nonetheless, doing the impossible every single day.

We need to let our kids see us try and fail. We need to encourage them to try and fail. We need to stop swooping in, hovering like a helicopter and clearing the way like a snowplow, making everything perfect for our kids. They need to fall. They need to challenge themselves. They need to problem-solve.

They need resilience and perseverance.

And the best way to teach it to our kids is to be resilient and to persevere ourselves. Laugh a little when things go wrong. Say you're sorry when you mess up. Dust yourself off and try again. Let your kids know that things are hard for you too. That you make mistakes and how you learned from them. Encourage your kids from an early age to move and explore and think. Let them move and explore and think.

And as for that student, when she tried the second time, she nailed it. But if she hadn't tried, she never would have accomplished anything.


Telling stories of resilient women with humor, heart, and a happy ending, Kathryn R. Biel is an award-winning author of numerous women's fiction, romantic comedy, and contemporary romance books. Her newest book, Seize the Day: The UnBRCAble Women Series, #2, releases November 7, 2019.

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