Today the 7-year-old is in tears again, or is it still? Aleks and Khan Academy are bumping him back because he hasn’t fully learned the latest subjects and concepts. His angst is wearing on me. I’m learning that the most important thing I have to teach him is how to struggle. How to work when he is confused and not the confident expert.
He is bright enough that he easily understands many things effortlessly. He is used to feeling smart and in control. Feeling stupid takes a huge emotional toil on him.
I am convinced that being able to feel comfortable and be okay with the gnawing feeling of stupidity is essential for all real progress in the world, both individual progress and institutional progress. If we already know all the answers, we aren’t really moving forward. In order to move forward we must first start by understanding where our knowledge ends and our lack of knowledge (or stupidity) begins. All great mathematicians encounter difficult problems where they may not even know how to begin to solve the problem. Feeling stupid in scientific research fields is common enough that it can carry with it something called impostor syndrome where a person is unable to believe the external evidence of their own competence and accomplishments.
So how do we make it okay to feel stupid? How do we make the feeling of stupidity something that inspires us to dig deeper for answers and solutions rather than something that makes us quit and walk away? It is our lack of self-confidence and self-esteem makes us want to quit (or cry) when we feel stupid. We don’t think we can work through the difficult problem and we don’t want to bruise our fragile egos by trying and possibly failing.
Much has been written on the importance of self-esteem in kids and how to build it. Much of it has been wrong. When I was growing up, I Am Loveable and Capable was used in both Sunday school and my public school as a way to build community and feelings of self-esteem. Even as a 4th grader I saw its stupidity. It taught that our egos are and should be damaged by the random and not so random acts of others. That our feeling of self worth can only be controlled by what happens to us, not by our own thoughts and actions.
New research is starting to show that self-esteem needs to be tempered by self-control, self-regulation, and yes, the ability to confidently keep struggling and working even when success isn’t immediate. We develop self-confidence not from avoiding failure but from learning that we are capable of surviving failure. We need to bring back scoring of pee wee soccer games and letter grades in elementary schools. We need to eliminate the stupid practice of giving all kids awards and trophies just for being on a team for an entire season. We parents need to back off and let our kids fail. When we act as helicopter parents and work with the coaches and teachers to prevent our kids from feeling the sting of failure, we give our kids the not so subtile message that we lack confidence in them. That we don’t think they can handle failure. Instead we need to let them realize that perhaps they weren’t quite as good as the other kid. That maybe they didn’t know quite as much as was expected for the class or test. And as they are feeling the let down of that failure we need to help them understand that failing isn’t the end of the world. That how they react to the failure will have a longer lasting effect than the failure itself. That they can and should work harder to do better and move through and beyond feeling stupid. Our kids need to learn that in feeling stupid and in failing they have great company.