Failure does not breed success when it comes to the brain, according to MIT scientist Earl Miller whose study of monkeys is cited in the Boston Globe article of August 3, “Why success may breed success.” When a correct response is rewarded, higher-intensity signals fire between the two learning areas of the brain. This increases the odds that the next answer will be correct too, according to Miller and his colleagues. To me, this seems more like Pavlov’s Dogs than true education, but still it sparks a question.
If success breeds success in learning, then why do we set kids up for failure every day? If we want them to succeed, we need to stop asking them to fit into a mold that doesn’t suit them and allow them the freedom to learn in ways that they learn best. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged or try new things (at which they will undoubtedly “fail”). It means allowing them more freedom to find their own paths for successful learning.
More and more parents tell me they are searching for solutions to help their struggling teens. One girl, Laura, dislikes sitting in a classroom and often does not want to go to school. One boy, John, is a “C” student who dislikes schoolwork. Every day teens like Laura and John fail to meet others’ expectations and in the process worry their parents.
If you want your child to fail less and succeed more, what can you do?
Second, tell yourself, “I am not to blame.” Many parents feel they are somehow not doing the “right things” (whatever those may be) when their children struggle in school. This feeling probably results from the two questions most often asked when a child isn’t doing well: 1) what’s wrong with the child? and 2) what’s wrong with the child’s parents?
Instead of blaming yourself or your child, remember that the most important thing for your teen in the short- and the long-run is a loving relationship — and put your energy into building that. Try to reduce the pressure you feel and ignore messages that tell you, “If you were a great parent, you’d have this child shaped-up and performing.” Those messages are myths.
Finally, make sure your teen has activities where he thrives. It’s not that your child shouldn’t have challenges and defeats along the way. Kids develop from doing something they love even if they aren’t “good at it” or even if it doesn’t seem to be important.
These don’t have to be formal, structured or expensive programs. For example, one week last winter John raced out the door every day after school to play in the snow. In the end, he created an intricate and elaborate snowboard park. John is learning and succeeding in this project, even though it isn’t part of his formal education.
Where there’s love, energy and enthusiasm, you can be sure there’s successful learning.
What is your child’s experience? How does your child learn best? I’d love to hear your comments!
I originally wrote this for Positive Psychology News Daily and the original article is here.