Last week it was all about the hand-writing. This week Isaac has been learning about column addition in maths and in the blink of an eye he showed us both the positive and the not-so-positive side of his perfectionist nature.
First the positives. He came bounding in from after-school club last night overflowing with enthusiasm and wanting to show me what he had learned that day. Before he’d even bothered taking his shoes off, he had grabbed the whiteboard from the kids’ playroom, plonked himself down on the sofa and started writing out sums to practise.
Then came the negatives. He got one addition wrong – he had omitted to carry a one over into the tens column – and as I gently talked him through the method his bottom lip started to wobble and tears welled up in his eyes.
We’ve seen this before, and it was something his class teacher had noticed already when we had our first parents’ evening with her before half-term. Isaac doesn’t like to be told he’s got things wrong. He’s such a perfectionist and so precise in everything he does – his capacity for absorbing and processing detail is phenomenal – that he treats even small errors as a catastrophic personal failing, and if not handled delicately it can cause him to withdraw into his shell.
I recognise my younger self in him. While I’ve learned to temper perfectionism with pragmatism as an adult, as a child at primary school I remember I was tough on myself too. I hated getting things wrong and couldn’t stand getting beaten at anything. I was that driven, that competitive and ‘losing’ or ‘failing’ would inevitably result in tears and the mother of all sulks. It wasn’t good enough to be the best – I had to be perfect, every day. Like father, like son.
Taking chances, accepting errors
While it’s good that Isaac sets high standards for himself, the danger is that if he cannot accept that errors are inevitable and indeed can often provide the best learning experiences, it will make him wary of taking risks and erode his self-confidence.
Without risk we would not make mistakes. Without mistakes we would have fewer opportunities to learn. Without learning we would not progress. Without any of these, we would not have cars or electricity or the internet or The Great British Bake-Off.
Education is all about taking small, structured steps to build both competence and, just as importantly, confidence. This means getting things wrong occasionally and learning from them, just as a toddler learns to walk through a combination of repetition, failure and gradual improvement. Nobody ever succeeded at anything worthwhile without the risk of falling flat on their face. Literally, in some cases.
At work, we used to have the following quote from IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr prominently displayed on a wall:
If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.
This always amuses me, because the exact opposite is written into the DNA of virtually every large company, where failure and volatile financial performance is anathema to investors and therefore senior management. In business we aim to minimise risk and errors with business plans and management control processes, always in the pursuit of that elusive ‘sure thing’.
It’s the polar opposite of how we are taught to learn as kids: remove the unknowns, control the variables, mitigate every risk, avoid failure at all costs. Better to make a sure, safe, modest return than to bet the house on boom or bust.
It’s the same outside of work. Having negotiated Isaac’s mini-meltdown last night, we had an introductory meeting with a financial advisor. One of the things we talked about was that, before thinking about how best to grow our money, we should ensure that our mortgage is covered in the event of death or critical illness. (Cheery stuff, huh?) In other words, first protect ourselves against the risk of something going wrong before focussing on how best to get things right. Get our sums right. Avoid tears before bedtime.
As parents, we have a responsibility to create an environment in which our children are safe and protected from harm, both now and in the future. But it’s also part of our responsibility in supporting our kids’ education to encourage them to stretch beyond their capabilities, make mistakes, learn from them, flourish and grow.
If we want our children to add to their knowledge and life experiences and reach their full potential, they have to be given the opportunity to carry the one.