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What's Right With Being Wrong

What’s Right With Being Wrong
By Theresa Willingham

From the moment of our birth, none of us have liked being wrong. We automatically rebel at a gentle “no-no” even before we can repeat it (although once we learn, we seem to repeat it with great glee to those in authority). Most of us work very hard to be right. We don’t like making mistakes; break something accidentally and the disappointment is often palpable. We want to have the right answers, even if the questions are trivial.

Mistakes aren’t rewarded in our society, and often with good reason. We don’t want doctors erring in healthcare, or engineers fudging on bridge designs or vehicle safety. Grades understandably suffer when children get answers wrong on tests. Even if they learn at home and those comparative assessments are unnecessary , we’re often looking for evidence that they’re right – often to reassure ourselves that we were right in our educational choices. And, of course, at the most basic level, pure and simple, no one likes to be wrong. The disappointment and discouragement of being wrong is not a feeling anyone likes to repeat.

And yet, there’s a certain magnificent – and magnificently human – necessity in being wrong.

Thomas Edison, one of history’s most notable of the home educated, had more than 1,000 patents to his name. Edison, a prolific inventor, developed creations that run the gamut from an automatic voting machine to the motion picture camera. Yet Edison’s success was not without its failures. Before making his first successful light bulb, he made many, many unsuccessful ones, experimenting with thousands of filament materials before happening – accidentally – upon carbonized cotton thread, which finally worked. As a matter of fact, between 1878 and 1880, Edison and his associates considered at least three thousand different theories for creating an effective incandescent lamp, and tested as many as 6,000 different vegetable materials. Queried later by a reporter about how he felt to have failed so many times, Edison is said to have replied, “I have not failed. I’ve discovered ten thousand ways which don’t work.”

How many of us today have the perseverance of Edison? In our age of high speed, touch-of-a-button information, who even has the need to persevere at much of meaning? Quite often, in our headlong rush towards condensed instant knowledge, we forget that all worthwhile learning is riddled with error. We’ve lost touch with the process of discovery, which can be delightfully dicey at best.

Without error, most of modern society and almost all of contemporary knowledge would not exist. Without mistakes, we would, at the very least, not have Frisbees, X-Rays, Post-It Notes, penicillin, potato chips, Silly Putty, microwave ovens or our venerable light bulb. Without error, we would have no way to judge right from wrong, correct from incorrect, success from failure. Indeed, the whole of science is impossible without error.

“...Good scientific ideas,” writes Dr. Glen Petitpas, professor of astronomy at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at McMaster University in Ohio, “have the paradoxical property that they can be shown to be wrong; that is, that they are falsifiable.”

Not surprisingly, the first real intellectual break children make with their parents is the often disappointing realization that their parents are fallible. But failing to teach our children how to fail can create some self-defeating patterns of behavior later.

Dr. Elisa Medhus, author of Raising Children Who Think for Themselves (Beyond Words Publishing Company, 2001) sites “fear of failure” as the main reason children have difficulty making decisions, and thus rely on or conform to others’ decisions.

“Unless we teach our children how to embrace mistakes, defeats, our self-confident little dynamo may learn to fear ridicule and reprimand. Eventually, he may even rely on outside evaluation to assess his own performance, measure his self-worth, and shape his future choices.”

Generally speaking, the details of error don’t matter much. No matter what environment we err in, none of us wants our credibility to suffer, anymore than our grades or our sense of progress. Fortunately, the cure for being wrong is the same in almost any context and you can set a good example by applying it: Admit you're wrong.

That’s it.

Well, at least that’s the start of it. Admit you’re wrong, calmly and graciously, and then go find the right answer, together if possible.

You don’t want to be cavalier about being wrong; we’re not looking for a “who cares?” way to deal with mistakes. Being wrong is perspective-setting only if we acknowledge it. It's far more useful to show others, especially children, that while you don't mind being wrong, the task now is to find out what's right. Error is the springboard to discovery and invention only if we explore where we went wrong, make an effort to find the right answer, or use the new information we got from our mistake to create something better.

We can't make the journey to discovery and knowledge if error is our enemy. If we're afraid to make or acknowledge mistakes, and consequently raise children who are afraid to err as well, then we fail as parents, as educators and as instruments of social change and maturity. A society of people stigmatized by failure, afraid to make mistakes or acknowledge error becomes a stagnant society full of compliant, fearful people. Medhus identifies some "defeat recovery skills" we can teach our children. Among them:

  • "Never admonish yourself openly for a mistake. Instead, mention what solution you intend to use and what you learned from that mistake.
  • “Oops, I burned the mashed potatoes again. I’ll wash out this pan and start all over again. I guess I shouldn’t try to cook and read magazines at the same time!”
  • Never bring up past mistakes. “Tommy, this is the third time you’ve tipped over your milk today.”
  • Teach your children to develop “failure tolerance” by not overreacting to their mistakes. Focus on the solution, not the problem or who is to blame.
  • Encourage your children to do things on their own, whenever possible. We shouldn’t rescue them from their struggles, settle their conflicts, or shelter them from challenges unless absolutely necessary. These actions send a message that they can’t make choices or manage tasks without our help. It also suggests a perfect result is more important than the attempt, itself.
  • Never compare your child to others. “Bobby, why can’t you be a big boy like John and stop whining all the time?”
  • Address the behavior, not the child: “Hitting is not allowed,” instead of “Quit being so mean.”
  • Never openly belittle others for their mistakes.
  • Always point out the successes that are buried in every failure. If Megan spills the milk, point out how she got her own cup out of the cupboard, lifted the milk carton up by herself, and so on.
  • Accept suffering as a good thing. When children struggle, they develop strength and compassion. They also learn that suffering is something they can overcome.

Or as William Connor Magee said, "The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything."

Theresa Willingham is a Florida-based writer who, along with her husband Steve, unschooled their three children. She has written for a variety of periodicals and websites. Her first book “The Food Allergy Field Guide: A Lifestyle Manual for Families” (Savory Palate Press) was published in 2000 and was awarded second place in its category by the Colorado Independent Book Publishers Association. More recently, she is co-author of the book “Makerspaces in Libraries,” for the series “Library Technology Essentials” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). She is also the Regional Director for FIRST STEM education programs in Central Florida, and a creative partner at EurekaFactory.NET, which specializes in the development of creative spaces and programming in public libraries and other institutions.

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