Years ago at a convention of educators, a lecturer showed a video of a young toddler trying to walk.
With each new fall, the little boy got back up, unfazed, and continued.
After a few minutes, and with a bunch of benevolent “Ooohhs” and “Ahhhhs” from the audience, he was eventually walking.
When the video stopped, the presenter left up on the screen an image of the boy, now proudly standing tall, and she said: “Isn’t he precious? and all those little falls of his – so cute!”
The audience was beaming in agreement.
But our mood immediately changed with her next words: “How about us adults, though, would we be as positive if our own falls were up on the big screen? I don’t think so. Whereas the child falls and then just continues on, untroubled, we as ‘grownups’ tend to fall and then criticize, especially when it’s our own failure we’re seeing.”
This really hit everyone in the crowd, including me.
I immediately recalled a few times I had failed in life. I remembered pretty viscerally that instead of just moving on to quick success like the boy in the video, I had been self-critical, which delayed or even made impossible my own growth.
I wondered how many times over the years I had said to myself or heard others saying of themselves: “My students aren’t progressing, I’m not a good teacher.” “I can’t get everything done in time, clearly I’m not made out for this.” “I messed up that parent meeting, they probably think I’m an idiot.” “This day was a complete failure, there’s something wrong with me.”
My and the audience’s benevolent view of the boy’s falls was a far cry from the self-critical view we might have of our own adult failures, and this woman knew it. She was pointing out that sometimes after a fall we beat ourselves up emotionally, whereas toddlers tend to just shake it off and try again, undeterred. If we can recognize our defeatist tendency, she noted, and consciously work to change it, we might become a bit more kind toward ourselves (and toward each other), and as a result succeed more often.
Happily for me, during this same time I was just beginning my professional career in Montessori education, teaching and doing administration in an environment where failure is viewed as a natural step in the process to success. (That doesn’t necessarily mean I always successfully applied that principle to myself, but I tried, and continue to try.) For those of us lucky enough to work in Montessori schools, we’re helping to create an educational world where children, and hopefully us adults too, have the opportunity to be comfortable with failure.
For example, in our “Casas” (Montessori classrooms of 3- to 6-year-olds) we include self-correcting materials such as the Pink Tower – which actually ensures children make mistakes – because we know it is the children’s working through such “failures” that eventually allows them to succeed.
(Maria Montessori recognized that much of a child’s self-confidence is developed by experiencing success at the end of a long line of errors. Through building the Pink Tower and working with other self-correcting materials, the child comes to learn that in the end – if he continues despite seeming setbacks – he will ultimately succeed.)
Underlying our work in Montessori education is the goal of aiding children to strengthen (or sometimes to rediscover) a natural comfort with failure. So that, as independent adults years after they’ve left our schools, they will hopefully approach life like that determined toddler, who after every fall just continues, unfazed, until he’s finally standing tall.
One of the most powerful examples I’ve ever seen of this self-determination *in an adult* is a short video of a young woman running a race.
Like the little boy from the conference I attended, she is a reminder not only of what we’re helping to offer the children in our Montessori schools, but also of the personal growth and triumphs we ourselves are achieving as we work alongside them.