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Friendliness With Error

How to reframe mistakes for ourselves and for our children

This past weekend, I read that Shawn Mendes (a musical artist) postponed a local show to focus on his mental health. He informed his fans, “[T]he pressure has caught up to me and I’ve hit a breaking point.”

I thought back to the summer Olympics when Simone Biles chose to prioritize herself over competing, citing her own mental health struggles.

I tried to imagine how it must feel to live in a fishbowl with paparazzi tracking your most banal movements, to endure sky-high expectations, and to have the entire world witness your slightest stumble. Even the most mentally tough person would find such a life difficult. And Mendes and Biles are only 23 and 25 respectively!

We live in a demanding world. Even if we are not famous singers or world class athletes, we feel the pressure to perform. Some of us may feel the pressure to be perfect. Even if we do not have an audience, spectators, commentators, or judges, we do have our own internal dialogue, which can be just as cruel as the worst tabloid.

People do not publicly share their biggest mistakes, fears, regrets, and shortcomings. If we use social media, we view highly selected, edited, and filtered photos showing a trendy beige playroom, perpetually joyful family, or pristine classroom. Feelings of inadequacy begin to creep in, and, when we do inevitably err, we might feel singular in our shame.

A cornerstone of Montessori philosophy is “friendliness with error.” Dr. Montessori saw how children learn and grow through their struggles. Children build the pink tower incorrectly, and it topples to the floor. Undeterred, they try again and again until they proudly present a completed tower. Children try repeatedly to construct the binomial cube, but it does not fit in the box. Finally, they succeed, satisfied as they close the lid. Making mistakes means that we felt brave enough to try something new, something that we had yet to learn, something that will help us stretch and grow.

Unfortunately, in my experience the “friendliness with error” fails to extend to the adults. When I observe other Montessori environments (pre-COVID, of course), the guide unfailingly says, “I’m SO sorry about the mess,” even though the classroom looks beautiful. When I give tours, parents will confide, “I’m not a picture-perfect Montessori parent,” as if that exists.

For anyone feeling the pressure to perform or shame about a mistake, please know that you are not alone. Even though we have decades of experience on Earth, we are still only human. In modeling how to recover from a mistake, in showing our children how we continuously learn, and in granting ourselves grace, we liberate them from fear of failure.

I hope that actions of public figures such as Mendes and Biles pave the way for more honest discussions about the pressure to perform and mental health. In the meantime, be gentle with yourselves as you navigate the joys and challenges of parenting.

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