By Judith Jolma
Photo Credit: Walyou.com
Fourth of July weekend, energy crackled in the air like the anticipated fireworks. Some good energy, some frantic as I stressed over all that needed to be done before 30 guests arrived for our backyard barbecue. The children joyfully formed an assembly line from the car to the kitchen to unload the Costco supplies.
“Don’t smoosh those hotdog rolls,” I instructed while pulling them out of the minivan and passing them to the first child in the assembly line. Checklists ran through my thoughts as I turned back to the trunk to grab more groceries. The hotdog buns, meanwhile, enjoyed a thrilling ride being tossed high into the air from one child to the next. Silly giggles rang out between cartwheels and helpful deeds.
Last item. I carried the watermelon into the house myself, handing it to my capable 10-year-old to set on the countertop. As we both turned away from the melon, it attempted a great escape from its holiday fate and rolled the length of the counter before crashing to the kitchen floor.
“CRUNCH! SPLASH!” The unmistakable sound of a watermelon exploding. The rind burst open sending juicy, sweet chunks flying and landing again with unmistakable micro slaps all over the floor, cabinets, walls…
My poor son looked shell-shocked and contrite. But his sisters and little brother howled in laughter.
Instantly a choice presented itself before me. Of course, I was irritated and now even more stressed. What a mess! Now we don’t have a watermelon! What is Independence Day without watermelon? Thoughts instantly interrupted by my son’s look of shame. Then interrupted again by the sheer joy expressed by the others at that incredible sound exploding watermelons make.
It was a mistake. An honest mistake. No amount of venting and scolding would put Humpty Dumpty back together. So making a conscious decision to be friendly with error, I reached for my sweet boy, hugged him close, and laughed right along with the other silly children.
“I’ve never heard a better sound,” I said.
“It was like a fish slapping someone in the face!” Little brother said.
“Look!” Sister pointed. “There are chunks way over here! How did it shoot all the way to the other side of the house!!!???”
A slight smile crossed my son’s expression as he looked up at me. He didn’t have to say it. I knew he was sorry. I knew he would be more careful next time.
“Well, no sense letting the ants eat it first,” I said. “Everyone, get a fork.”
A guiding principle in our homeschool is that we are friendly with error. It’s a tough principle to master, and even in mastering this principle, one must be friendly with the error of not being friendly with error. But if failure is the gateway to success, then mistakes are welcome.
This is especially important for the perfectionist in the home. I have one child, for example, who
gets instantly discouraged if he cannot solve an arithmetic problem the first time he learns the
concept. “Hey!” I say to him, “I know you don’t know long division. If you knew it, I wouldn’t have to teach you. So let me have a job.” I make sure they know that I do not expect them to get all the questions on their worksheets correct. Or all the words spelled correctly in their first draft, or the bathroom cleaned perfectly. This is part of learning. We all must pass through the awkward gateway of mistakes to reach maturity.
But perhaps the most challenging aspect of being friendly with error is to be friendly with my own errors. If I am the textbook for my children, then I must model gratitude in the face of setbacks. I must be able to laugh at my own shortcomings. But I must also share with my children what I learned from my errors and how I will grow from them. Otherwise, how will they ever know how to do the same for themselves?
We live in a culture that demands perfection despite a total lack of training. We hide mistakes. That is not the culture in our home. In the learning environment, it can be very helpful to have white fabrics that show when something has been spilled, for example. We use real glass when safe to do so. This way a child learning control of motion can see the full effects of their mistake when paint spills or when they do not carry the glass carefully and it breaks. At this point, we do not scold or grow angry. We say, “Oops! Let me show you how to clean that up.” At a later time, we will give clear instructions again about how to carry the glass with two hands. From this example, the child learns from natural consequences especially when he misses his favorite broken glass or sees the blue paint stain on the pretty cloth.
This is what is called “control of error” and it should be noted that the error is very much controlled by the adult. Broken glass is fine. A broken heirloom vase is not. So we only give the child things that we are okay with should it become broken. The same thing goes for the white fabrics. And it is always done within the guidelines of what is safe.
We also control the error by not setting the child up for failure. We challenge the child but never give them a task clearly outside their ability. For example, I carried the watermelon into the house and gave it to the child who was strong enough to hoist it to the countertop. Had I given it to the 3-year-old to carry from the car to the house, it would have been an intentional failure on my part. We want the child to succeed so we do our best to help them succeed while offering real opportunities to fail.
Our supportive home culture is critical if there is to be freedom to make mistakes. We must never, ever, under any circumstances tease or make fun of anyone who makes a mistake. Humiliation is a poor schoolmaster. We also comment on the things done well rather than things done incorrectly.
What good would it have done had I said to my contrite child, “Why didn’t you watch that melon? You were careless and irresponsible”? The only outcome from that lecture would have been to discourage my son from ever helping me again.
Instead, we can say (once the laughter fades), “Watermelons don’t like barbecues. We should make sure they can’t escape next time.” Then we can demonstrate how to prevent a melon from rolling away.
Being good-natured with error requires preparation. Trust me. It is easier to scold and vent anxiety than to laugh when watermelon seeds are stuck to the cabinet faces 30 minutes before guests arrive. So the preparation comes from a pre-determination of behavior along with intentional practice with little things. It takes Herculean effort to be friendly with error when we haven’t slept well, are hungry, under financial, social or marital stress, or under pressure in other areas of our lives. For this reason, we should never feel guilty about managing these other arenas. Taking care of our whole self is how we prepare ourselves to be gracious to our children when they make mistakes.
The most important thing about being friendly with error is that the children are unshakably confident that you are on their side. When they are not trying to earn your love and approval by their behavior, they are free to reach beyond themselves and grow no matter the risk of failure.
So remember, in case of exploding watermelons: bring laughter.
By Judith Jolma, Founder of Sophia Homeschool.
Sophia Homeschool teaches parents how to homeschool. Learn more about our training at Sophiahomeschool.com
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