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Learning from your mistakes is a lesson for life

Learning to pick yourself up after something has gone wrong is an integral part of any education and it’s the responsibility of parents and schools to let children make mistakes, says Antonia Beary, headmistress of Mayfield School, Sussex.


Making mistakes isn’t easy for any of us, but it should be a crucial part of education. Today, more than ever, it is an increasingly traumatic experience. Many children, particularly girls, feel that they need to get everything right, all the time. We know that is not possible, but the pressure it creates – self-inflicted or fuelled by parents – is immense. Research has shown that girls feel the pain of failure more sharply, which is why the learning environment we seek to create at Mayfield needs to ensure that the pupils feel sufficiently confident to take risks and make mistakes. Otherwise you end up with girls (and sometimes boys too) who only attempt what they know they can achieve and therefore underachieve. This can be hugely frustrating and the pressure has to be lifted. The internet offers lots of frightening ways to deal with this and, worse, normalises them.

It should come as no surprise that issues of mental health are not only increasing but are emerging earlier in younger children. Access to a wide range of media can lead children to constantly feel they are not good enough and don’t have enough. This is hardly surprising, when they are so frequently presented with such unachievable ideals, dubious values and virtual lifestyles, which blur the distinction between fact and fiction.

We are all familiar with the pressures on girls to have ‘perfect’ bodies and complexions, and the products marketed to address these. The increasing commercialisation of male grooming products also suggests this is becoming an equivalent problem for boys. Even the term ‘grooming’ – with its unpleasant modern connotations – gives an indication of the effect the media and multinationals are having on us all for financial gain.

This insecurity can be compounded by pressures at school with unrealistic expectations of achieving the highest grades from day one. London, in particular, is intensely competitive with the 11+ exam dominating a child’s life at junior school. Parents tell me that they feel that if their child is not immediately successful, he or she will be categorised as a failure and this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a highly competitive market. Those who are considered clever are pushed to achieve more. Don’t fit the mould? You will be left behind. In practice, what this means is that those who are well-behaved, sit quietly and learn what they are told and regurgitate it at the right time in the right way, are considered successful. They may indeed go on to score highly in exams, but they are not always able to think independently, creatively or originally.

Children need to have time to think, to play, to get in and out of trouble, to develop enquiring minds and the motivation to find out the answers for themselves. By elevating a certain type of learning and certain skill sets to the exclusion of others, we are alienating an increasing number of children, who have an impoverished and inaccurate perception of their own self-worth. As a country, we are losing a tremendous amount of potential. Not to mention how much it will cost the NHS in care and medication.

Schools need to help parents to cope with their children making mistakes. Children need to experience getting things wrong in a safe and monitored environment to grow and be healthy. That way they learn how to cope with things not working out the way they had imagined, and realise that they can pick themselves up and carry on. They also find out what they are good at and learn to value different strengths in themselves and others. This resilience has to be experienced. Children need to learn what they should respond to themselves and when to ask for help. Giving in too soon and always relying on other people is a bad as trying to do everything on your own.

At school, children need to have the opportunity to learn through trial and error. Owning up to mistakes and learning from them is an important part of any education. Parents who rush to defend their children every time a mild criticism is made do them no favours. Every child (and, indeed, adult) messes things up from time to time. Denying it creates an illusion and additional pressure. No child can live up to such unrealistic expectations and, furthermore, such a parental response can compromise the teacher’s ability to help a child learn. Fear of disappointing parents is a great inhibitor. Acknowledging (without celebrating) the inevitability of things going wrong can occassionally be a relief for children.

Any good parent wants to help their child on the road to success, but some methods can be counter-productive. Those parents who want to be their child’s best friend are doing them a disservice. Being a parent is a far more important role than that. Of course children need close friends but the role of a parent is so much more: it does mean trying to walk side by side, but it also requires setting boundaries and, even more importantly, sticking to them. Increasingly we live in a world where there is too much choice and this is daunting for young people. They are not as experienced as they sometimes like to pretend, or feel they should they be, and don’t feel equipped to make the right decisions. They will look to the adults in their lives for guidance; they don’t need a friend and equal, they need direction. Often they are frightened of making any decision, lest it be a bad one. We as teachers and parents need to help them make informed decisions, then cope with the results – good or bad. We shouldn’t be afraid of providing a moral framework and of working together to set boundaries. All children need to learn to assert themselves, but the more consistent we are with our boundaries, the safer and more effective their learning experience will be.

Are the girls and staff at my school perfect? Certainly not. We are human. We might be striving for perfection but the relief in knowing that we don’t have to get everything right all the time, and that there are people to help us cope when things go wrong, leads to more creative learning and happier students. That’s success, that’s education.