It was a weekday night much like any other in my house. Pick up the kids, arrange them at the dining room table to work on homework while I try and cobble together something for dinner as my husband finishes the last of his work calls. Like most nights, this one was not without its share of tears and frustrated little fists curling together over and over again as my six- and eight-year-old tried to slog their way through another night of homework. I checked my eight-year-olds work and discovered a problem with her addition, subsequently requiring me to ask her to try it again, which caused her to dissolve into frustrated tears, convinced that since she didn’t get it right the first time that she was a total failure.
I needed a new approach
It was at that moment that I, crusader of learning from mistakes, who tells my students over and over again that practice makes permanent and that mistakes are nothing but speed bumps along the road to success, realized that I needed to approach how my daughters’ faced failure differently. It was not enough to simply tell them that it was ok to fail, that most often than not our failures will amount to nothing but a passing blip on the radar of life as we steer our ship towards amazing feats and wondrous adventures.
Clearly, my go-to speech was lacking in some way, shape or form
I realized that it was missing one key element, in particular, that of adaptability. It was not enough for my daughters to hear that it was ok to fail, that it was to be expected as they learned; they needed to learn what to do when they faced failure. They needed to learn how to adapt themselves to the situation and come out triumphant, victors in their own right. I thought about this and how I was going to word it, trying to pay dual attention to what was on the stove while at the same time my daughters’—yes daughters plural, for now, my youngest was having issues with reading—both had tears running down their faces.
The impromptu analogy
On the countertop I saw it, innocuous in its light brown shape of a circle within a circle, and I had my ah-ha moment; I grabbed the rubber band and sat down at the table with them. “See this?” I said. Both girls nodded their heads as the tears slowed to the occasional fat drip, I held up the rubber band between my thumb and forefinger. “What shape is it?” this question made both girls start to smile, “It’s a circle!” “Exactly,” I said as I set it down on the table. “Is it still a circle?” Both girls nodded and I could almost hear the gears turning as they tried to figure out what was coming next.
“What do you think would happen if I asked this circular rubber band to become a triangle?” I asked. Pensive for a moment, they looked at me and shook their heads. “No idea,” said my eldest. I picked it up and held it between my hands, changing the circle into a triangle. “Look at how it bends,” I said “do you see how it has adapted itself into a triangle because that is what the situation called for it to become? Do you see how it might not be perfect, but it is definitely a triangle?” My girls nodded and smiled. “What do you suppose will happen when I remove my fingers?” Both girls eagerly responded, “It goes back to being a circle!” “Right!” I said.
I then grabbed an old twist tie that I had found in the kitchen junk drawer just moments earlier on a quest for the correct ladle. I showed it to them and asked what shape it most closely resembled, they answered, “A rectangle!” “Great!” I said as I prepared my follow up question. “What do you suppose will happen if we ask this long rectangle to adapt and become a triangle?” They looked at me as I bent the twist tie into a trilateral shape and as I held it up with my fingers I asked what would happen once I set it down on the table. Without hesitation, they both answered, “It stays a triangle.” “Exactly,” I responded, “it has changed to fit the circumstance, but it has adapted poorly since it is no longer able to go back to its original shape after the given task is done.” I let them sit there for a few moments to ponder while I finished up in the kitchen.
I didn’t really know where I was going with this analogy when I started, but the more I thought about it and the more I talked about it over our spaghetti dinner the more I got to thinking about the valuable lessons we could learn from two rather banal household items. While both objects are designed to hold things together, only one will bounce back to its original state of being afterward, thus remaining true to itself while at the same time being able to adapt to what the situation calls for. While the other remains stagnant, forever locked in its position until it is asked to change shape again, forgetting entirely what shape it initially was.
At its core, the rubber band is open to change
It knows that even if it becomes a triangle or a square that it will always be a circle once it is done with the task at hand. But it is not just adaptability that the rubber band teaches us; it is also a key instructor in knowing and accepting our limits. Stretch it too far, ask it to hold too many objects together and the rubber band breaks. This simple household object teaches us the power of knowing our limitations and the extent to which we are able to do our greatest work and where our breaking point is.
It is not enough to tell our children and students that it is ok to fail
We need to arm them with the necessary tools that will allow them to readjust in any situation where they face problems. Being able to adapt doesn’t mean losing who you are in the process, it is all about transforming ourselves, especially in that moment when we face failure, into someone who is able to look at the problem anew and come out victorious.
Now when my daughters do homework I leave a few rubber bands on the table
From the kitchen, I can hear my eldest say, “I need to be more like the rubber band, I can get this.” While my youngest will continually run into the kitchen with the rubber band between her fingers and thumbs and ask me what new shape or item she has asked it to become. The latest was a kite, “Cause you know, they fly high and soar above the ground.” Not wanting to lose another potential teachable moment I asked why flying high was important to her. Clearly not in the mood for any of my mom wisdom she replied, “Cause it’s awesome.” Returning to the table to finish her math, she reminded me that sometimes I too need to adapt and be present in the given moment, basking in the wonderment and awesomeness that being a mom and a teacher can bring.
Feature image courtesy of the author.