Falling Forward


"My 4-month old baby is growing by the day and every morning I wake up with anticipation to see how he’s grown since the last night. And as days and weeks go by, not only does he grow in height and weight, but he grows in his ability to do things like hold his head up, babble in conversation, kick his strong legs. It’s fascinating seeing how he’s learning new things every day.

One thing he’s started to try and do is to stand up. He loves being held so that he can stand on his two feet and enjoy looking at the world with his new height. But obviously, at 4 months, he can’t stand on his own and his legs will buckle in tiredness every so often and we need to get him to sit or lie down. And we understand that it’s not because he’s not able to stand but just that he’s not able to stand YET. It’s not that he has failed in his pursuit of standing on his own two feet, he’s in the process of learning and we believe it will happen one day.

But imagine that as I watched him not being able to stand on his own, I conclude that he’s not capable of standing and that I must protect him from failing and falling. I don’t want to see him fail as he’s trying so I then go and carry him everywhere, believing that he can’t stand and even as he grows up, I place him in a wheelchair and wheel him to school because he can’t stand. Of course it sounds ridiculous and no one in his or her right mind would do that. Instead, we’d likely keep on assisting our child to stand, give him encouragement to do so, that when he falls, we’d help him up and let him know that he can do it. Then eventually, he’d be able to do it independently.

So it sounds ridiculous that we would ‘protect’ our baby from standing so he could avoid falling instead of teaching him to stand but isn’t that what many of us do with older children? When our kindergartener can’t wear his own shoes, we put them on for him. When our primary-school aged child can’t do his Math homework, we do it for him so that he doesn’t need to get red marks. When our teenager doesn’t know how to write his college applications, we hire someone to do it for him. This isn’t to say that we can’t help our children but there’s a difference assisting them to become independent versus diving in to help them from failing.

And ‘failing’ is seen as something negative when it really should be seen as an opportunity for learning and growth. Without failing, we don’t know how to improve. Even Thomas Edison, when inventing the light bulb, failed 10,000 times before succeeding. But he didn’t see those 10,000 times as failures, he said that “I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work” and with every one of those tries, he learnt something new and tried again.

Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford University is the champion of the Growth Mindset which basically believes that our brains and its capacity aren’t fixed, but instead, if used, stretched and challenged, they will grow. So instead of shielding our children from failing, we should see that each ‘failure’ is helping them move forward – ‘failing forward’.

Some tips on helping your child ‘fail forward’:

  • First, find out what is developmentally appropriate for your child to accomplish. For example, asking a 3 year old to do calculus in Math would not be appropriate! But knowing how to count would be.
  • When your child isn’t able to do something, give ‘lift ups’ where you prompt him or give one step of assistance. Don’t swoop in and do it all! For example, if she can’t spell a word, help by sounding out the letters or giving the first letter.
  • After a failed attempt in doing something, show encouragement to your child by praising effort, articulating what was done well and how he could improve next time. For example, I know you didn’t get the ball into the goal but good job for running so quickly and trying your best. Next time you can try kick harder.

In helping our children ‘fail forward’, we will help them build resilience, independence and ability to face challenges in their future. Let’s all ‘fail forward’ together! "

Christine Ma-Lau 
Founder & Principal 
JEMS Learning House

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