The volume level of the room resembled a Friday night dance party or perhaps a giant family feud. The capacity of teens is enormous and often unrecognized. Today their capacity was for agitation, friction, and lack of focus. With assignments looming, expectations were far from complete. The latest irritation between classmates was the focus of attention by the group. It was three or four years into my teaching career and I walked out of the classroom, in a meager attempt to cool my jets. Over the years there may have been close to a hundred times I allowed the emotion of the children or moment to almost get the better of me. With practice, I learned to step away ask what will serve them now for the long-term. No one ever claimed this work would be easy. If easy likely we’re missing something or many things. Set high individual expectations and let them experience the consequences of their choices. The stakes are almost never life or death. But in future they could be, so fail safely now. This is the greatest gift I can give my students. This is real life.
There are complex feelings around allowing our children or students to fail. It is often perceived as a reflection on our skills, and judgment certainly kicks in. Alison Gopnik discusses the adult emotions associated with a child’s success in the Gardner and the Carpenter. Watching them struggle or fail is hard when we so quickly can solve the problem for them. Rush in and tie their shoes, complete the project, or schedule their time. What is more important for the child as they develop? Our adult ego and agenda or their future?
When my son, Markie was an infant he loved grocery store trips. At six months disregarding the weather, he considered footwear optional. As snowflakes danced outside, he joyfully swung his bare feet sitting in the front of the store cart. After similar grocery store visits, I gave up retrieving the socks and later tiny shoes. If he wanted bare feet fine! I would wait for the immediate reveal allowing him to make this choice. What is the big deal? Despite my own insecurity around my barefoot baby, I strolled through the store engaging with him as we shopped. Together we smelled the various fruits and vegetables or named the items in the dairy section. Selfishly this was also done to put up armour as the comments rained down from complete strangers.
“Do you know your child has nothing on their feet?”
“I can’t believe you would let your child go barefoot.”
One woman suggested she should call Children’s Aid.
What does this have to do with the long-haul? It was letting him experience some autonomy and the consequences associated. In the moment it is easy to forget often the consequences are positive.
In contrast, I can think of hundreds of examples where parents and teachers did not allow children to experience the joy and agony of making choices. I do it too, even today for my twenty-something children. But I also believe strongly almost anything worth learning takes practice. And over time the challenges should increase. So if we want children to make good choices and learn from poor ones they have to experience both. We also have to instill in them our faith in their ability to solve the problems and cope with the difficulty associated.
When Markie started high school my husband and I finally agreed he could purchase a cell phone. Yes, ALL of his friends already had one, or so he said. He could have one but he had to find a way to pay for it. We knew he had been saving for months. We would assist with a limited plan. If he went over the plan he lost the privilege. We made it clear that a phone is a privilege, not a necessity! If the phone was lost he was out of luck until he saved to buy another one. He loved his phone and took it everywhere.
A few months later one evening as he was rushing about to get ready for school the next day. I heard a gasp from the laundry room. Retrieving his pants for school, he realized his precious phone was now laundered! I felt terrible for him. I knew he worked hard for it. I came close to going against my own beliefs and bailing him out. I would buy him a new phone. Thanks to my husband, we stuck to the initial conditions. Markie saved again, several months later buying another phone. I was wrought with Mother’s empathy but realized replacing it would not help him.
In the moment children evoke every form of emotion allowing us to easily lose our rational self. But if you can, consider the long game, the practice, the necessary experiences today to assist for tomorrow. So often we want to wait until we think they are even more ready only to find out it is past a wonderful window of opportunity.
Finally, if there are non-negotiables with children make that clear and stick to them. I still want children to experience the joy of success and being clear in advance what the expectations are assist with that.
We do everyone a favour when we think of how our actions today contribute to their tomorrow.