Monday, July 30, 2007

What's wrong with a little failure?

I bought Claire some Play-Doh this weekend. She loves the stuff and we already have a pile of it, but I was buying Jake a little car. I can get away with buying utilitarian items for one child and not the other - nobody screams about socks. But any fool of a parent knows that you can't get out of the store with one toy and two children without screams that can melt steel. So. Play-Doh to the rescue.

As soon as we arrived home, I opened the pack and showed Claire how to use her new tool. She played with it for about 20 seconds before abandoning the tool in favor of the little brochure that had been enclosed in the packet. I sat down to look at it with her. And then I saw it. "Perfect every time." It was in the description of a kit for little critters.

Isn't "perfect every time" in direct opposition to the whole point of Play-Doh? It's PLAY-Doh, not PERFECT-Doh. I want my kids to feel free to play with it. I want bowls made from coiled snakes, dogs with legs that are too short, and lumpy trees. I want my kids to have the freedom to make it the wrong way as they discover that art isn't about perfection.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine sat down to help her daughter with an art project. They had a booklet with various products and instructions for making fairy princesses. The mother dutifully read the instructions and showed her daughter the correct way to construct her fairy princess. There was even a moment of panic when the mother thought she might have to draw a circle by hand! She eventually found a round object to trace so that the pumpkin coach would be perfectly round. I've never seen a perfectly round pumpkin in my life - and I consider myself something of a pumpkin connoisseur.

I think we're stealing process away from our children in our relentless effort to protect them from failure. I have no doubt that it's done with love. Failure can be awful and we all know how it feels. I am an horrible artist. I still remember Mrs. Olsen, my fourth grade art teacher, sneering at my painting of Peary at the north pole. "This isn't a finished painting. It's just a red blur on white paper!" On my mama bear level, I'd certainly like to protect my children from that sort of scathing criticism. On my intellectual mama level, I realize that kind of shelter comes at a cost.

What I need to do, what I think we all need to do, is teach our kids how to handle failure instead of preventing it. Let's replace "perfect every time" with "perfect with practice." Let's teach our kids to tell the Mrs. Olsens of the world that criticism needs to be constructive. Let's teach them to ask about what's good, what's not good, and how to make it better. Let's give them the freedom of creative process.


Katie Alender said...

I really dislike products for kids that are designed to placate parents.

Are you one of the people who confessed that they freak out when the Play-Doh colors mix?

Christy said...

I'm the one who started that whole conversation because I was surprised by how much it bothered me. I let them do it, but I grit my teeth a bit. I'm a parent-in-progress.

Karen said...

I find that keeping the colors separate comes with age. ;) We have this discussion at times because Tess wants whatever she is drawing to be perfect. We went through the stage where she wanted me to draw the circle or whatever because she couldn't do it right. I tell her a lot that practice will make it more the way she wants it. Now that I think of it, she must have been listening because she hasn't asked me to draw the whatevers lately. lol

Mary Witzl said...

I agree with you that process is far more important than product in teaching art, and as long as a kid experiments and has fun, that's half the battle. And kids can't be expected to keep everything pristine. Having said that, I used to get so annoyed with my kids for using a pack of colored pencils, markers or paints, not putting it away properly or treating it with care, then, on receiving another set (as they so often did!), opening them up and doing the same thing. There was a point when we had hundreds of colored pencils, markers, crayons, oil-based crayons, etc, all mixed up -- and of course half of the markers had tops missing.

LisaS said...

A few years ago (before I became a parent) I was playing Legos with my cousin's kids, just building whatever the same way I always have. The kids spent most of their time looking in an instruction book that came with the set, trying to build exactly this or exactly that. I was horrified. Whatever happened to figuring it our yourself--or just building whatever came to mind?

Why does our results-driven society have to reach into our children's toyboxes? Why can't we let go of "perfection" long enough to let people learn things in a natural way, for heaven's sake?