Our work at Boston Children’s Museum has taken us well beyond our walls, into our local community and even to schools and afterschools across New England and around the United States. Through professional development workshops and visits to afterschool programs that we have conducted across the country, it has become increasingly clear that there is a growing issue facing our children; what I am calling a “resiliency gap.” We hear a lot about a series of disparities that impact children and families – the income gap, the digital divide, learning gaps…all things that require more: more money, more resources, more infrastructure, more time. But an ever-increasing divide (and one that cuts across all income lines), is a deficiency that requires not more of us as caring adults, but less…and that is a growing gap in resiliency, what used to be called “stick-to-itiveness.”
This is the willingness to keep trying, despite setbacks, and it may be the most important science and engineering skill that is taught the least. And this is not a skill that you either have or don’t have – it is most certainly a skill that can be learned and developed. If we want children to grow up to be productive and resilient adults, we must recover this skill. We do children no favors when we give them the answer, coddle them, or allow them to quit without appropriate effort. If we do so, we run the risk of raising a generation that believes they are capable of anything…but that lacks the resolve to make anything happen.
Failing is not always a failure – sometimes it is an opportunity. This is not to say that you should actively seek out failure for your children, but rather that you should teach your child to fear it a little less, to learn and grow from it, and to understand that the path to success is almost always populated by obstacles along the way that challenge our resolve and skill.
Thomas Edison, when asked if he felt like a failure the thousands of times he tried to create a light bulb, responded by saying “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” This quote is often cited (and has likely evolved since he said it), but the message is powerful.
In more modern times, Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx (yes, I just invoked Spanx) says that the success of her billion dollar invention traces back to her father, who every day would ask her “What did you fail at today?” This was not a slight, but a challenge to his child to try harder, to stretch herself beyond what she felt she was capable of doing. And that willingness to challenge herself led her to tremendous success later, as an adult.
This is the heart of not just science and engineering, but so much of life: every engineer, every scientist tries and fails…and tries again. It is the only path to real success. If not allowed to learn how to fail, what will your child do when they encounter the inevitable obstacle? With no history of failing, they are more likely to cease what they are trying than to continue on.
As a parent, I so understand the desire…the NEED to step in and console, support and even to DO for your child when they encounter difficulty. I fall prey to this inclination often. There may be times in which this is the best thing for them. But for those other times, the best you can do is let them fail, pick them up, dust them off and encourage them to try again…and even fail again. Eventually they will succeed, and learn an important lesson about how resiliency got them there.