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Willing to Try

Willing to Try - Learning Without Fear of Shame
By Wendy Priesnitz

One of things I experienced as a child – and one of the main things that I wanted to spare my daughters – was the shaming and humiliation that went on at both school and home. I often watched its numbing effect on my friends, but even as a shy A-student, it was sometimes directed at me for various awkward stumblings or my inability to carry a tune or solve arithmetic problems on demand while standing in the aisle beside my desk. Perhaps my good marks and generally acquiescent behavior sometimes actually caused the humiliation because I remember being told by teachers and parents alike, in tones dripping with disgust, “You’re just not trying hard enough.” Sometimes it was subtle – or maybe even unintentional – but often it was clearly overt belittling. It wasn’t just adults who did it; other children picked up on the tactic as a model and used it to bully other kids, long before “bullying” had a name. Other times, it was just fallout from school’s competitive climate and my parents’ overwrought expectations of an only child born late in their lives.

Dr. Brené Brown (author of The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, among other books, and presenter of The Power of Vulnerability, one of the most-watched TED talks) has been researching the subject of shame for many years. In a 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, she warned parents about the prevalence of shame in children’s lives. In fact, she called it schools’ “number one classroom management tool.” What might start out as humiliation or guilt about having done something “bad” can eventually convince the child that not just her behavior is bad, but that she, herself, is bad. Or a child with already low self-esteem can move right to feeling shame.

I don’t think the teachers – and other adults in my life who used shaming and humiliation to create the behavior they wanted to see in me, like my parents – saw anything wrong with this lack of respect for children or their assaults on our dignity. In fact, they may have thought it was necessary. Nevertheless, and aside from the obvious self-esteem issues, repeated humiliation and shaming result in children who are conditioned to recognize their limits; it teaches them what they can’t do. It results in children who aren’t confident enough learners to try new things, to take risks, to be brave explorers rather than passive consumers of information.

So we are giving our life learning children a gift when we avoid shaming them regarding their “mistakes” or “failures.” They can remain willing to try, which is, after all, a major part of their early learning adventures. Their curiosity and urge to learn isn’t conflicted by fear of failing. So they boldly explore and question as a way of learning about the world. They are free to develop what Brown calls shame resilience, which is the key to developing a sense of worth. They learn for the sake of knowing, rather than to please someone else or to avoid being shamed. And, because they have avoided learning that they are what they accomplish, they escape the trap of perfectionism, which is about trying to earn approval instead of shame. They are willing to try without fear of being wrong.

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s founder and editor. She has been a life learning advocate for over forty years and is the author of thirteen books, including Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn’t Exist, School Free, and Challenging Assumptions in Education; editor of the anthology Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier, and contributor to many more.

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