There’s been a lot of learning going on in our house lately, and it’s got me thinking: Do we learn more from our successes or our failures? Our toddler, Linnea, is learning some valuable lessons this winter, such as if she repeatedly stands up in the bathtub and/or drinks the bathwater in defiance, then Mom will promptly remove her from the tub. And, if she intentionally rubs apple sauce, yogurt, or spaghetti into her clean hair, then Mom and Dad will not have happy looks on their faces. Thankfully, she’s also learning how to do somersaults, sing songs, and build towers. What’s interesting to me is that she gets multiple types of reinforcement as she learns what to do. Some of it comes from her own sensory experiences—”It feels kinda cool to rub this stuff in my hair”—while she also observes the approval or disapproval of her parents and caregivers.
As a first-time parent, it’s pretty clear to me that this is an art form. I’ve been experimenting with using both positive and negative reinforcement, and I try to reserve the latter for situations that are more dangerous, e.g., standing up in the tub. But helping my daughter learn has made me wonder: Do we as people—children and adults—learn better as a result of positive reinforcement, either intrinsic or extrinsic, or must we, as the saying goes, learn from our mistakes? Some MIT researchers have found that when monkeys are trying to master a new task, their brain cells only “learn” when they do something right. On the other hand, one U-Mass professor says that people can be trained to seek positive outcomes so much that they take fewer risks, which can prevent them from trying new things or reaching their potential.
Both of these findings make sense to me. Sometimes, we need to experience success before we truly understand what doing the “right” thing is supposed to feel like. For example, when I was 15, my dad taught me how to drive on a big manual transmission truck. Over and over again, I got the clutch/gas timing wrong, and I didn’t seem to be learning from my mistakes. Dad would try to explain what it should feel like, but I just didn’t get it until everything came to together one time. Once I knew what success felt like, I had no problem. I still dumped the clutch on multiple occasions and freaked out at stop signs on inclined slopes, but I knew how to drive. I just wasn’t very good.
Similarly, when teaching children—or athletes—new skills that require coordination, it often helps to break things down into smaller pieces or modify the activity to make it easier. Right now, Linnea doesn’t really know how to jump, but we’re helping her do simple movements that simulate the feeling of jumping. There are some fun benefits to having a father who is 6’8″, and I’m sure he didn’t learn how to dunk overnight, either. Through little successes, Linnea will eventually be able to coordinate all of the body parts required to jump.
In emotional matters as well, we often don’t learn what we’re doing wrong until we experience what it feels like to do it right. For example, many people can’t stop their cycle of unhealthy relationships because they don’t know what it would feel like to be in a healthy one. Through serendipity or trial and error, they stumble into something—someone—wonderful, and only then do they learn something truly life-changing about relationships.
This is not to say that we don’t also learn from our supposed failures. I have, on numerous occasions, taken steps in life, both big and small, that could easily be chalked up as failures. For instance, I spent two years earning a graduate degree in Exercise and Sport Studies that, on the surface, isn’t related to my current career. I’ve been passed by for scholarships, jobs, and awards, and I’ve experienced the grandmummy of all relationship failures—the dreaded divorce.
Did I learn anything from all of that? Sure. Do I think I’m a better person for having experienced failure? Absolutely. Am I any less inclined to put myself out there? On the contrary. As I think about what I’ve learned in my life, from the alphabet to how to avoid a hangover (this one took longer than I’d like to admit), I know that Linnea will be well served by being set up to succeed while also being allowed the space to fail at times.
Right now, I am loving her Tot Clock, an ingenious device that helps kids learn when it’s time to go to bed and wake up (Thanks, Grandma Rose and Grandpa Larry!). When we start to read books at night, the clock turns blue, and Linnea knows it’s time for lullabies and snuggling up with her soft blankets. At 6:00 a.m., the clock turns yellow, which means it’s time to play. We’ve been working on this one a lot lately, as Linnea has a tendency to start hollering for me somewhere between 4:45 and 5:30. If she succeeds in making it until 6:00, I come into the room all smiles and sunshine, and I even push the special green “reward” light on the clock, which she loves. And you know what? It’s working! Some days she actually sleeps well past the yellow light, like this morning, when I woke to the sound of her calling out desperately, “Mommy, my yellow light is on!” And while I could have used a bit more sleep, I was happy to go celebrate her latest success.
I Want to Know
- What has success taught you?
- What have you had to learn “the hard way”?
Attention Bloggers! Write a post on this topic—using the questions above as a jumping off point—and link it up here!