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.
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,
- Never compare your child to others.
“Bobby, why can’t you be a big boy like John and stop whining all
- Address the behavior, not the child:
“Hitting is not allowed,” instead of “Quit being so mean.”
- Never openly belittle others for their
- 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.