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What’s Right about Being Wrong Part 2 By Theresa Willingham

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By Theresa Willingham

For homeschooling parents, being wrong takes on some interesting dimensions, since we’re tackling academics in addition to philosophical, ethical and family issues. Not only can we err as parents, but as we progress on through higher and higher grades and more sophisticated subjects, the chances of erring as teachers increases commensurately. This is a problem certified school teachers face as well, but their relationship with their students is a professional one, usally, and not a personal one, which affects how the error might be viewed. And from a classroom perspective, being wrong as a public schooled student often has different consequences from being wrong as a homeschooled student, with respect to grades, privileges and other issues.

We can't make the journey to discovery and knowledge if error is our enemy.

Generally speaking, though, 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.

Now, you don’t want to be cavalier about being wrong; we’re not looking for a “who cares?” way to deal with mistakes, like the cat I once saw race on to a freshly mopped tile floor. The cat careened across the wet floor in a direction far removed from its original path, slammed into a wall and tumbled head over heels into another room. Obviously surprised, it nevertheless promptly started grooming as if nothing had happened and then rose, tail at a jaunty angle, and deliberately strode off in its new direction. It was pretty funny to see a cat do that, and possibly productive from a human perspective (onward!), but overall it accomplished nothing.

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.

Medhaus identifies some “defeat recovery skills” we can teach our children. Among them:

  • “Never admonish yourself openly fora 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 the 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 over-reacting 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.”
  • 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.”

“If you’re not making mistakes,” said John W. Holt, Jr. (Celebrate Your Mistakes), “you’re not taking risks, and that means you’re not going anywhere.”

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

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