Learning is Hard and That’s OK

Aggravation when the dream doesn't go as planned....

This morning the American Psychological Association (APA) released some new research – and it is now my favorite bit of parenting news. The study, out of France, suggests that when children become obsessed with success, and thus afraid to fail, their academic performance may actually suffer.  They surmise, in fact, that experiencing struggle and even failure in academics can be a good thing for the student in the long term.

Isn’t this great news? If you could see me right now, I am jumping for joy!


Because I am no fan of perfection. 

Not only is perfection over-rated and boring, it can be oppressive, and, if taken to the extreme, can become a barrier to a happy, healthy life.


Children and adults who insist on always “doing it right” or being perfect, often miss out on opportunities and experiences where perfection is either impossible or highly unlikely.  Drawing, skiing, gardening, soccer, and creative writing are a few things that come to mind.  For those who insist on perfection, these sorts of activities can be highly anxiety-provoking, if not avoided altogether.

So, how can we help our kids understand that the mental wrestling that often comes with learning a new skill might actually help them in the long run?

Let them see you fail.  When was the last time your son or daughter saw you fail?  Been a while? Maybe it’s time to give something new a try so they can watch you in action.  For example, I recently tried my daughter’s new skateboard even though I hadn’t been on one in at least 25 years.  As I got ready, I spoke about my anxiety aloud. “Geez, it’s been a long time since I’ve done this, I feel a little nervous.”  After I stepped on the board (then promptly fell off), I let her know, “That was hard! I guess I’m going to need to practice a lot more before I can zip around the neighborhood like I used to!”

Notice the process and the progress, not just the end result.  The study’s authors suggest that we, as parents and teachers, might want to reward progress toward goals, not just grades and test scores.  Something like this: “Amy, when you were reading aloud to me last night, I noticed that you had to sound out fewer words than when you read to me last week.  There were still some words you didn’t know tonight, but you are really improving in your reading!”

Make perfection a four letter word.  As noted above, perfection is boring at its most benign, and paralyzing at its most destructive.  Avoid demanding or expecting perfection in yourself or your kids.  Instead, work towards enjoying missteps and mistakes, and the opportunities for intellectual growth they provide.  Failure, struggle, and a need to practice skills in order to achieve mastery is normal, and now we know–actually beneficial, too!
Photo by loyal_oak (via Flickr)

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3 Responses to “Learning is Hard and That’s OK”

  1. drbourdeau   March 29, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Well said, Dr. Stephanie!