That’s How You Learn to Err

When my eldest son began to ride a bike, I used the “patent” my father used to teach me how to ride: inserting a broom stick between the rear luggage seat and the bicycle’ body, in order to balance the rider. I was not the only parent who risked his back, huffed and puffed – and hurt his child’s learning experience. When I sensed that the boy reached balance, I pulled out the broom stick and prayed he wouldn’t crash.

When his four years’ younger sister wanted to start riding, I got a tip from a professional riding instructor I met in the park. “Take off the pedals, lower the seat, and let her push the bicycle using her legs”, he said. “When she’ll feel safe, she’ll lift her legs and glide”. “On the plain, there is no danger. That’s the fastest and safest way to learn to ride a bicycle at an early age”, he assured me. So I let go of my doubts and my need of control and followed his instructions.

And so it was. Ten to fifteen minutes after I removed the pedals, I watched my daughter balance herself with a clear-cut pleasure, as she glided with her legs up in the air.

When this happened, I reconnected the pedals and raised the chair according to her height.

Control – It’s not what you think

At first I refused to believe how simple and ingenious his tip was. My child’s riding duration was far beyond my wildest dreams, without falling at all, and I didn’t suffer from back pain and unnecessary guilt feelings. From that day on, every time I see a parent that tries to balance a child on a bike with a broom stick, I stop and try to explain that there is a better, more efficient way to help him learn to ride a bike.

Does it help? Usually not. Most parents shrug their shoulders, continue to hold the bar and run after their children. Only a few dare to try. Some claim that this is how they feel more in control. They are in control indeed, but the greater their control, the more diminishes their son’s control of his learning process.

In learning, experience and play are the name of the game. As Piaget and many other developmental psychologists have already determined, experience and play are the most effective modes of learning and development for children. It is no wonder, therefore, that when we do not allow the child to make mistakes, we also do not allow him to experiment.

The brain needs errors

Brain-learning is a process of trial and error. The experience builds connections between neurons in the brain. When the brain realizes that it has made a mistake, it thinks about another possibility, consequently expands its capabilities. No mistakes, therefore, equals no learning.

Cycling can be dangerous, and it is natural that parents are anxious. But when the child controls his speed, and has the ability to stop (and control) his actions, he also dares more. In the process, his mind learns to balance itself while riding. Young children’s brain is flexible and can learn quickly, if we just let them try, fail and try again, without giving up safety of course.

The child tries – encourage him, the child succeeds – praise him

In order for the child to truly learn from his mistakes, we – parents, teachers and the instructors – need to change our attitude to his mistake and the terminology we use. The first step is to use words of encouragement for each attempt and praise for his achievement.

Since children are very sensitive to authenticity, it is important to distinguish between the meaning of encouragement and the meaning of praise, so that we use them more accurately and effectively. Rick Lavoie (an administrator of residential programs for children with special needs in the US) explains this best:

 Praise is a response to success and is negated by failure. Judicial value is inherent to Praise.

Encouragement, on the other hand, is a positive recognition of the child’s efforts and progress. Encouragement is not judgmental and does not depend on success.

Remember: a child is supposed to earn a praise; encouragement is a gift. Be measured in praises and heap encouragements!

Words that make the difference

Even when the child is wrong, it’s important how we mark it. If we’ll declare, “That’s not true,” we’ll empty his willingness to try again. If, on the other hand, we will analyze with him the way that led him to make the mistake, he will be given the tools to think better the next time.

I talked about cycling, but the moral is relevant to all aspects of life. Think how quickly we tend to intervene and “fix” the way our children act in simple things, even if they are safe, thereby deny them the possibility to learn and develop. Let them make mistakes. They’ll thank us.