At Your Service: July 29, 2009

She flails her arms and legs in the air; she recently noticed that when she is facing the other direction the same motion moves her forward. When that happens, The-One-Who-Has-Always-Been-There takes the same position at the edge of her sight range and says, “Good girl, come to Mama, come to Mama.” And then, if The-One-Who-Comes-and-Goes is near, he will swoop her up in the air and blowing into her tummy say, “That’s Daddy’s little girl!” It doesn’t matter how many big ones are around when she does this, they all stop whatever they are doing, get excited and make the same kind of noises.
He presses his lips together and pushes the air from his lungs; the vibration resonates in his bones and feels good. So, he holds his lips together for as long as he can, then releases them with a puff of air. It doesn’t seem to matter where The-One-Who-Smells-Sweet is at that moment, she comes running when he does this and takes him into her arms, repeating, “MaaaMaaa.” It is a completely different reaction than he gets when he is uncomfortable and makes the loud noise. He gets a similar reaction from The-One-Who-Smells-Musky when he presses his tongue against the top of his mouth and blows, except that it is more likely that TOWSM will lift him high into the air and shake him saying, “Yeh, DaaaDaaa, DaaaDaaa.” If others are around, he adds, “He’s a chip off the old block – strong and smart. Check out those lungs!”
What these two scenarios have in common is failure. The baby girl is failing to walk while the boy is failing to communicate.
That’s right. She is failing in order to walk, by learning to crawl and he is failing in order to communicate by making different sounds to generate different responses. In either case, this failure results in their receiving attention, reinforcement of the behavior and affection. It is a very different kind of response than we tend to gives adults who are failing to learn.
In order to learn anything new one must be willing to fail over and over again until the skill is mastered; it is the basis of the learning process. We try, fail, try and fail over and over again until we get it right. Research indicates that receiving reinforcement and praise from others will accelerate the process.
Whether we are training a new employee, explaining a change in procedure to existing staff, working to improve our own budgeting skills, or simply engaged in the perpetual learning process that is life, we do well to remember what we learned as infants.
In order to succeed, we must first fail. We may, on occasion, get lucky and do something the right way the first time. Unless that “right way” is identified as such, we are likely to do it a different way the second time. Identifying behavior as appropriate to the situation requires feedback; it generates the result we want or it does not.
In order to support others in succeeding, we must be willing to let them fail. We don’t see adults criticizing the way infants crawl or correcting the way a knee is bent, we are likely to give them as much space and time as they need to learn. Parents intuitively model crawling, speaking a specific word and other behavior they want their infant to learn and shower them with encouragement and affection. Demonstrating a procedure and/or modeling appropriate behavior while providing positive feedback is the most effective support we can give to others.