Take a Deep Breath and Try Again

This past Saturday, my three-year-old daughter and I played with a jigsaw puzzle app on my iPad. We started on the “easy” level – just nine pieces. At first she randomly dragged pieces across the board, but after a few minutes, she developed a strategic system and her face lit up with exhilaration.

On Sunday, she asked to play again. I suggested that she try a harder level. Her eyes got wide. When she saw twenty scattered pieces fill the screen, her eyes got wider. “I can’t do it,” she said. “Let’s do another easy one.”

“Just try,” I told her. “And if you get frustrated, take a really deep breath and then try again.” After several deep breaths (and a short snack break), she once again found a strategy.

Most of us have negative emotional reactions to words like “struggle,” “mistake,” and “failure.” At the same time, we all want to raise creative, resilient kids. So it’s worth paying attention to how we react to setbacks – our own and those of our children. What is your internal dialogue when you struggle? What types of language do you use with your children when they hit a wall of frustration?

Dr. Carol Dweck has conducted extensive research on how children develop grit. Much of her research can be boiled down to this: the language that we use with our children helps shape their mindset about challenges. For example, she describes how praising children for their efforts instead of their outcomes (e.g. for the work they put into a paper rather than for the grade on the paper) helps kids develop grit and resiliency.

Frankly, this is sometimes easier said than done, especially when we so often forget to “take a deep breath and try again” in the face of our own challenges.

That’s why creating a safe place to make mistakes is such a powerful exercise for both adults and children. Here in the middle school, we strive to do just that. We celebrate the courage it takes to tackle something hard, to raise a hand in class, to dance on stage, to rappel a cliff, to tackle a project outside of one’s comfort zone, to experiment – even if that experiment yields unexpected results. Healthy, caring communities celebrate the struggle that is inherently associated with learning, creativity, and growth.

In his book Creativity, Inc., Pixar President Ed Catmull describes how famed writer-director Andrew Stanton approaches mistakes:

Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases, ‘fail early and fail fast’ and ‘be wrong as fast as you can.’

He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes – without toppling over a few times. ‘Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so that you’re not afraid of falling, and go,’ he says.

If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: ‘You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on. That’s no way to learn, is it?’

Shouldn’t our goal be to help children see the beauty within the struggle, the honor within the effort, and – when faced with a daunting puzzle – to “take a deep breath and try again?”

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