Perhaps I will mostly be remembered by my students as that ‘crazy’ teacher who used to say, “I want you to make lots of mistakes.” I could always feel myself grinning inside each time I saw their astonished faces. I mean, mostly parents and teachers get mad when children make mistakes, right?
So I told them that by making mistakes they would learn far more than by getting things right all the time. And since I passionately wanted them to learn a lot, I emphasised that I wanted them to make a lot of mistakes that could probably teach them more than I ever could.
No, I am not as ‘crazy’ as you may be thinking right now. I still have a vivid memory of my daughter dancing, spinning around and around in circles like I had done as a three-year-old. She was unaware that I peeped through a crack in the door to watch as she danced, wondering if I was a sweet and innocent child like her.
You may be surprised that I had such thoughts, but I grew up believing that I was ‘bad’ because I made so many mistakes. In fact, I grew up believing that I was a mistake because I could never do anything right, no matter how hard I tried. Endless punishment and scoldings seemed to be my lot I life. It led me into perfectionism, intensely fearful and anxious of taking risks. And this sabotaged many attempts to push myself beyond my fears and limitations.
A cross word in a moment of frustration or fear, or a jealous and cutting criticism from a parent or teacher can become a truth to a child. Often children cannot see that behind cross words a parent may be angry at a partner, or a teacher may be frustrated by discipline problems in the classroom.
A fear of rejection and abandonment causes a child to hide these words within, often believing them to be true. Repeat them often enough, and cross words in an adult’s moment of impatience or anger creates toxic shame; a deep wound that can, and does, cause people to hobble through life in fear rather than living to their highest potential.
As a teacher I saw how this shame impacted a nine-year-old girl at a small country school some years ago. She plucked up the courage to show me the black box of negative comments, written by her previous teacher, that she had cut out of her schoolbooks. Talking with the children, I recognised that this teacher’s inability to deal with their problems of low self-esteem, led her to punish them unfairly – often with negative comments in their workbooks.
The impact of this punishment was revealed in a startling way shortly after the beginning of the year. One of the girls entered the classroom during lunchtime to collect the artwork I had just taken off the wall from the previous year. She dashed out of the room to the incinerator (a 44 gallon drum) which had been lit by one of the boys. Curious, I watched from the window as she gave each of the paintings to the small gathering of children around the drum, where flames were now licking and dancing. One-by-one, each child gleefully tore their art into pieces and threw it into the flames.
Their unanimous reply as to why they had done this was, “To get rid of the bad memories from last year.” Further questioning revealed the intense shame (which to them was feeling bad) they all felt after two years of constant punishment and critical remarks. When I asked them why they didn’t become upset when I pointed out their mistakes and how to correct them, they said it was because they knew I cared about them and that I was helping them to improve their work, which they felt good about.
I learned a lot from that class. They showed me how shame makes us guarded with others and afraid to open up for fear of having our flaws exposed. But by holding shame in, we shut people out. We also shut out valuable learning experiences.
When shame causes us to shut people out in relationships, it also sabotages intimacy. This often creates a downward spiral in a relationship, which can either end it, or cause it to tenuously exist on a very shallow level where each person tries (usually unsuccessfully) to get the other to meet their need for love because they are unable to love themselves. Neither can they give love freely and unconditionally to others. Unfortunately, that often includes their children.
As I reflect on my own many mistakes while writing this, there have been some I have regretted and tried to set right with mixed success, some that gave me a good laugh, and some I have had to learn to forgive myself for. There are also some very painful ones which brought insights and wisdom; each like a pearl found in an oyster upon which I cut my foot. For me, insight and wisdom are the most precious gifts I have discovered after making mistakes and learning from them. And this wisdom now helps to steer me safely through life’s reefs like a beacon shining in the night.
My daughter gave me a precious gift that day I watched her dance: the chance to see the innocent child I had been so I could let go of shame and begin to learn to love myself, accepting at the same time that mistakes are an important part of each person’s growth.
I see a child as a flower, learning to unfold to reveal its inner beauty. Crush it with negativity and criticism, and it will never open.
First published in the Ballarat News, February 23, 1994. Rewritten and updated on August 19, 2010
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