Updated: Jul 30, 2020
In our family, we have a rule about mistakes. But I'm not going to tell you about that yet.
Instead, I want to tell you a most likely familiar story.
Recently, my 3 year old was drawing. At first, I heard happy chatter and singing as she contentedly created. And then, a sudden shriek of fury. She scrunched up her soft little fists, stomped and grunted, then proceeded to crumple up her paper, yelling "It's NOT BEAUTIFUL! I am never drawing AGAIN ever!" as she proceeded to throw out her art in the recycling.
Then she sat down in the middle of the living room and began to cry.
And so, I told her my own (improvised) story. (I've gotten really good at these!):
When I was a little girl, I was trying to draw a turtle. I remember working very hard and using many colors. When I was finished, I proudly brought it to show my mother what I'd made.
She said, "wow, what a beautiful tree you made!"
I was crushed.
I promptly scrunched my own soft little fists, stomped and grunted, and tore my paper apart, throwing it angrily into the trash bin (Those days we didn't pay attention to recycling vs. landfill in the same way).
And that was that. I decided to never try to draw a turtle again.
The next morning, I woke up and found my tree-turtle taped together and hanging on the refrigerator. Before I could
say anything, my father exclaimed, "I love the bird that you drew yesterday! Good thing your Ima (mom) put it back together."
A BIRD!? Now my turtle had been warped into a tree-turtle-bird! My young little mind was incredulous.
And then I stepped a bit closer and looked again.
Before me, there was a circle attached to another smaller circle with two long lines coming down from it. It could have been a tree. It could have been a bird. And it could have been a turtle.
And then I started thinking about what it felt to make it (here's the elaboration I liberally peppered in). I thought about the feeling of the oil pastels in my hand. The way they scratched the paper in such a fulfilling way as they added layer after layer of color onto the page. About how I was so happy as I was drawing. I was in the flow, my body was full of that golden fuzzy feeling that I only got (and get to this day) when creating.
My tree-turtle-bird hung proudly on the fridge after that.
When the story was finished, I looked into my own little girl's wide blueberry eyes and said:
"On that day, I learned it doesn't matter what I make. It also doesn't matter if it's beautiful or if I make a mistake. What matters is how it FEELS when I'm making it. And to me, beautiful isn't pretty or pleasing to the eye or even well done. To me, beautiful is did I enjoy myself while creating? And beautiful is what did I learn in the process?"
"And mistakes are a wonderful thing! If I never was willing to make mistakes, I never would have gotten better." I kissed her little scrunched up nose and asked, "Do you think that the next turtle I drew was perfect? Or the next? Or the next? Do you know how many times I had to try to draw a turtle before I was able to make it look and feel like a turtle to others?"
She knew the answer.
She also understood that turtles don't have to look like turtles to anyone but us.
A turtle can look like a tree or a bird or even a rocket ship.
And we get to create again and again.
So here are some of our family values:
Mistakes are simply learning. Life is full of mistakes!
There is no such thing as perfect.
How something works or looks at the end is less important than how it felt while creating it.
And there are also some rules about how we create. They revolve around sustainability and emphasize process over product.
We can use fresh clean paper in order try things out, make mistakes, and create boldly.
If what we created doesn't look or feel like we wanted, we get to celebrate how it felt to make it.
And if we want to try and try to make something better or learn a specific skill or idea, we have plenty of scrap paper for reuse that we can crumple, tear, and cross out on. And we can always re-tape it and hang it up too!
So next time your little one begins to crumple and tear, stomp and grunt, don't just say "that's beautiful, why are you tearing it up?" Validate their feelings. Making and creating is hard. We get to feel all of the feelings: disappointment, frustration, despair, embarrassment. And then we get to see our mistakes as beautiful. They are beautiful because they are an opportunity for learning and growth. We get to make turtles that come out as trees and we get to say that they were meant to be turtles but we can see why others would see it as a tree.
We also get to set boundaries and expectations around our values. I did not say "don't throw out your work" or "don't waste the paper" I set some expectations that help us further dig into the courageous vulnerability that is needed to create and share our creations with the world.
And in this way, we get to raise humans who are not afraid to mess up or iterate. We get to raise humans who celebrate the mistakes because they are the path towards our growth. These are the kinds of people we need to raise if we are going to have a semblance of a possibility of saving our world. We need bold thinkers who are unafraid. We need them to be OK with feedback that suggests that the product is less than perfect. They will know that perfection is a concept that does not exist. Instead they will understand that perfection is in the process of the making.
So don't simply celebrate every single drawing as "amazing" because this simply teaches that we HAVE to be amazing all the time. Instead, celebrate the doing! THIS is the secret to happy making.
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