Kids are born knowing the secret to success. If they could, a baby or preschooler might explain it like this: Look before you leap in to help me.
“Even the youngest kids instinctively know something about mistakes—and success—that we grown-ups have forgotten,” says Jesse McCarthy, a parenting coach and Montessori consultant in Irvine, California. “They know the only way to succeed is to make errors.”
The lesson hit home for McCarthy when he recently caught this viral video of a toddler in a dragon costume learning to skateboard. Maybe you saw it too:
Wyatt, just 22 months old, tries to stand up on the board, which is set on a low platform. He loses his balance, careens off. He lugs the board back into position, rolls along on his knees, then stands up and flips onto his back.
He falls…a lot!
It’s enough to make you cringe. But Wyatt never cries. He doesn’t get mad or quit.
He keeps at it.
Impressed, McCarthy couldn’t help comparing the intrepid toddler to his own recent efforts to learn to ride a hoverboard.
His approach: Hide in the garage so nobody sees!
“It should give us all a sense of pride to tackle challenges, but wow—I was too worried about what other people would think,” he says.
Insight #1: Kids love the process more than anything—and they get annoyed, even harmed, when we disrupt it.
At not even 2 years old, Wyatt “gets” that skateboarding is going to involve trial and error—making lots of mistakes, shaking them off, staying focused, and self-correcting along the way. (Relax—he’s perfectly safe. Wyatt’s teacher at the Young Guns Skate School in Auckland, New Zealand, where his siblings also skate, took the video. So he’s being supervised and wears plenty of padding, plus the helmet.)
“Young kids try things and don’t seem to care about mistakes,” says McCarthy. They know it’s how we recalibrate and learn. They have no fear of failure.”
Picture a baby learning to walk. She falls down—and gets up smiling.
Picture a toddler in a sandbox, trying to fill a bucket with sand. Shovelful after uncoordinated shovelful, almost nothing gets into the pail. It’s pretty agonizing to watch! But if a parent tries to step in and show how, WAAAAAHHH!!
What’s the problem? “She didn’t want sand in the pail. She wanted the job of putting it there, because kids are process people,” McCarthy told me.
Or imagine that your 4-year-old says she’s thirsty. Most of us would stop what we’re doing, locate an unbreakable spouted cup, and get her a drink, right? But what if she knew how to get her own water or juice from a small pitcher that she totally could handle? Sure, she might spill—but then you could show her how to clean up.
What’s so bad about stepping in? Imagine a guy whose life dream is to scale Mt. Everest, McCarthy says. An expedition like that is about the journey: the planning, the packing, the prepping, the climbing. He makes it a quarter of the way up and then whoosh! Superman flies in and carries him to the summit. “He’s not going to be thanking Superman for that,” McCarthy says.
“A child sees success not as getting the liquid exactly in the cup without spilling any but in pouring it all by herself. To her, that’s Mt. Everest.”
She wants us to respect her ability to do things, even if she doesn’t do them in the way we might see as “successful.” And if she’s criticized and corrected while she’s trying to master every step? It’s demoralizing and counterproductive, he says.
Insight #2: Only offer kids help when they’re truly seeking it.
The key question to ask ourselves: “Is my help absolutely NEEDED right now?”
Even if it looks to you like too much of a struggle, notice: Is your child looking back at you hopefully? Unhappily? Motioning you over? Verbally asking for help? Or are you imposing it?
Will your child be damaged forever if you don’t swoop in? Baby crawling toward a pool: Yes! Baby crawling on the ground: Nah, might scrape a knee, but nothing fatal.
Likewise, a toddler walking in a crowd without a tether isn’t going to be swallowed by the earth and disappear. Spelling errors on homework you haven’t proofread won’t make your child flunk out, McCarthy points out.
Better: “Be near, but don’t interfere,” he says.
Even if we think we believe that whole blessings-of-a-skinned-knee gift-of-failure idea when it comes to our kids…in reality, we often blow past the whole idea of trial and error.
Successful salespeople are adults who still think about failure the way kids do. They don’t hear “no” as a rejection or a sign that they’re terrible salespeople. They’re unfazed. They keep going. To them, it’s just a “not ‘yes’ yet.”
What others see as failure is, to them, just part of the process—helpful feedback that will allow them to recalibrate and try another approach that gets them to the “win,” the sale, or the deal. The accomplishment.
It’s the same for kids.
That’s true whether it’s an infant learning to walk, a toddler learning to pour sand, or a child (of any age!) trying to ride a skateboard.
“Long-range success requires trial and error. Your child can’t succeed without it,” McCarthy says.
And neither can we.
When we recapture childhood’s healthy understanding of “failure”—that slow, persistent, unfazed, and nonjudgmental process that includes our falls—we find more success.
We can be less self-critical, more forgiving about our mess-ups. We can be “process people,” focusing less on a perfect final outcome and more on the messy, beautiful journey. We can take more risks, knowing that they’re a necessary part of learning and growing at any age.
To err is not only human (as that Shakespeare line goes); it’s essential to being human!