Recently I was playing a board game with four elementary-school-aged kids each teamed with their volunteer Big Brother or Big Sister. I noticed at each turn that three of the kids refused to read their game action cards out loud. They would draw a card, hold it in front of them and look at it intently, knowing they were the center of attention at that moment while the rest of us looked at them expectantly. Finally, after a long silence, one of the adults (usually impatient me) would ask “What does it say?” Sometimes at this point the child would look up and smile, sometimes they would continue staring at the card, but at no point would they dare to say a word. One girl, two years younger than the rest, started out reading her cards, or at least eagerly attempting to read them, but as the game progressed she began to copy the behavior of the older kids and then she, too, stopped reading anything out loud. In order for the game to move forward, they would either hand their card to their adult teammate, or simply sit like a stone while their adult teammate finally leaned over and revealed the action required.
In my experience, kids clam up like this when they are afraid that they might get something wrong. Rather than risk being laughed at or judged — either by their peers or an adult — saying nothing at all is a safe strategy. These kids were smart. They quickly sized us up as adults who would step in and read it for them if they just waited long enough. We definitely took the bait — hook, line and sinker. This was a friendly game situation with adults who were neither teachers, coaches nor parents, and a very small group of kids, yet they clearly felt too vulnerable to risk making a mistake. It speaks to the enormous fragility we humans have when it comes to taking risks. It takes a long time to build the trust needed to feel safe.
Contrast this with the kids who were in our loosely-formed group of homeschoolers. They seemed much less afraid of getting something wrong, and much more likely to explore out loud around peers and grownups. They were not vying for grades or worried about what they might be tested on later, which eliminated a lot of anxious energy that was better spent happily learning. Their days and years were lived around friends and family they could fully trust to support and encourage them. They felt safe to try things, safe to be themselves.
They didn’t have to don the “cool” facade of armor that so many kids wear to cover up their real feelings and interests. No one needed to outperform a classmate in order to succeed, which resulted in their being incredibly encouraging of each other. Perhaps because they were with people who gave them honest feedback without the need to make them look bad in the process, they had little fear of being less than perfect. They were free to explore ideas as they came up, play around with them as long as they wanted, or move to another idea if that seemed more interesting. The result was a group that cooperated with each other, laughed together rather than at each other, and respected everyone around them, kids and adults alike. When new kids came into the group, they were easily accepted and welcomed. There was no need to form cliques. Everyone was an “insider”.
This was our “normal”, but outside adults who interacted with our kids reminded us just how unusual it was, when we repeatedly heard positive comments on the genuine enthusiasm for learning, the lack of infighting and the degree of encouragement among the kids. With this strong foundation of trust and acceptance these kids grew up to be confident, willing to think outside the box and better able to deal with stress when it came.
The effects of fearing to risk, of needing absolute certainty that we are “getting it right”, extend long beyond childhood. Strategies aren’t really all that different for adults in the workplace who don’t speak up in meetings or who hold back for fear of looking ignorant. Maybe the extent of this issue is why Brené Brown’s TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, has been one of the most watched talks to date. In her book, Daring Greatly, she quotes a technology CEO who says the fear of being ridiculed, laughed at and belittled when introducing an idea is the most significant barrier to creativity and innovation. Our deep fear of feeling shame drives a myriad of unproductive behaviors.
A culture of people who are afraid of failure is not likely to be one where people push the boundaries with innovative thinking and revolutionary ideas. Becoming aware of the ways in which we shut kids down compared to strategies such as unschooling that keep them open could be the beginning of finding new ways to support and encourage future generations. Imagine what our world might be like if we could remove barriers to creativity and see more of our kids grow up feeling comfortable with emotional risk and vulnerability.
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