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Encouraging the Will to Learn in Teens

It's important to keep failure safe and make mistakes instructive.

Key points

  • Adolescence takes a lot of trial-and-error learning to finally grow up.
  • Mistake-based education offers important lessons about living to teach.
  • It takes parents understanding the risks of learning to make youthful learning safe.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Sometimes, parents forget how growing up takes trial and error learning, which can feel risky for an adolescent who feels beset by growing insecurities from developmental change.

Questions about one’s changing self are now perplexing and ongoing.

  • What’s happening to me?
  • What’s wrong with me?
  • What should I do?

No longer a child but not yet an adult, it can be a struggle to find one’s older way. Now, after some faltering steps, discouragement can come easily. “What’s the matter with me?” “I can’t get it!” “I’ll never learn!” It’s easy to find fault with oneself, get down on oneself, and lose confidence in oneself.

And when parents get impatient, irritated, or blaming, they make a hard passage harder still. Countercharging in her or his own defense, the teenager can protest: “You’re always complaining!” “You keep criticizing!” “You’re never satisfied!”

With parents, there can be a kind of “adult amnesia,” forgetting how challenging adolescence can be when one feels deviled by growing insecurities.

Charges an insensitive parent: “When I was your age, I never made stupid choices like this!” That’s right: the parent probably made different “stupid choices.” But who’s telling?

The great school of life

What can help their downcast adolescent, feeling discouraged over their latest mistake, is when parents describe how learning the hard way—from miscalculation and mischance—works when you’re growing up and when you’re grown up, too. Then, they can further explain.

“In the Great School of Life, you and I will always be students. This means that no matter how old and experienced we get:

We’ll never know it all,

We’ll never master it all,

We’ll never remember it all,

We’ll never experience it all,

We’ll all do some foolish things,

And none of us will always get all A’s.

The best we can do is try our best, keep trying when the going gets hard, learn from the errors of our ways, and credit ourselves for doing what works out well. And just so you know, I may not have made your mistakes growing up, but I sure made plenty of my own, and continue to do so.”

Mistake-based education

Parents can be supportive by endorsing mistake-based education. “If you’re not making mistakes, maybe you’re not being honest or are not trying hard enough.”

Then, they can offer an appreciation of mistakes, itemizing some of the good that bad choices can sometimes bring.

  • Accept it: being only human, everybody makes mistakes.
  • A mistake is a choice people would make differently if they could do it over again.
  • People don’t make mistakes because they want to; they make mistakes because they didn’t know any better or didn’t think more clearly at the time.
  • All mistakes are costly, but they can be worth the expense if they are used to inform and instruct.
  • A bad mistake can teach a good lesson.
  • Making a mistake is not a failing; not learning from a mistake is a failing.
  • While it is ignorant to make a mistake, it is stupid to repeat a mistake.
  • Sometimes, people have to repeat the same mistake a number of times when there is something hard they don’t want to learn before they stop acting stupid and start to wise up.
  • The smartest people are not those who never make mistakes, but those who use mistakes to make better choices the next time around.
  • The stupidest people are those who are unable or unwilling to admit and learn from their mistakes.

Then, parents need to acknowledge the risks of learning for everyone.

Risks of learning

Everybody has to learn to grow—to understand new information and to master new skills. Learning is always a challenge because it comes with potential risks.

For example, to understand something new, or to master doing something new, you face five possible risks of learning:

  1. You may declare ignorance: “I don’t know/I don’t know how.”
  2. You may make mistakes: “I won’t get it exactly right the first time.”
  3. You may feel stupid: “I’m not as smart as those who know and do better.”
  4. You may look foolish: “I get to show how ignorant and inexperienced I am.”
  5. You may get evaluated: “Compared to better others, I am judged as inferior.”

Unsafe and safe parents

Now, consider how parents, the child’s primary teachers, can make learning safe or unsafe.

Unsafe parents are:

  • Intolerant of ignorance: “You should know better!”
  • Impatient with mistakes: “You got it wrong again!”
  • Critical of capacity: “What’s the matter with you?”
  • Blaming of foolishness: “You should be ashamed!”
  • Harshly evaluative: “You’ll never understand!”

Such parenting can discourage the will to try and learn.

Safe parents:

  • Affirm ignorance: “Learning starts with admitting one doesn’t know.”
  • Value mistakes: “From getting it wrong, you learn to get it right.”
  • Reject feeling stupid: “Everyone will learn at their own rate.”
  • Praise feeling foolish: “Struggling to learn is brave to do.”
  • Give supportive evaluation: “Now you know more than before.”

When learning feels unsafe, it can feel safer not to try. Fear of learning discourages the will to try. At worst, an anti-learning lesson can be learned: “If I can’t do a thing easily and well, I won’t try doing it all.”

Parents need to be in the business of encouraging curiosity, the willingness to try, and the desire to learn.

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