13 June 2011

Uh, Oh!



“I never make stupid mistakes.  Only very, very clever ones.” John Peel

Like most Moms, I’m always encouraging my boys to try new things, to explore novel ways of doing the same old, same old, to take measured risk and in general, to open their viewpoints and thus, their worlds. Along with this encouragement, I offer the standard reassurances that ‘we all make mistakes,’ that ‘mistakes are how we learn’ and that ‘it’s fine to make a mistake.’ (My favorite on the rare occasion it happens to me.)

I’m joking, of course, but kids can’t take the risks they need to grow without knowing it’s allowable to fail, especially with all the pressure piled on them today. I used to tell my boys a story about my father, who learned to fly a P-47 fighter plane during the Second World War. When he began flight training, he made more mistakes than anyone in his entire squadron. He made every mistake in the flight manual and then some he invented, so many he despaired of ever getting off the ground. But it turns out he was the very first person in the squadron to solo. And he soloed first because of all the mistakes he made. They were his opportunities to learn how to recover from errors that are inevitable. He went on to become half an Ace.

It’s not always as easy to see the correlation between mistakes and achievement, and of course my father’s was a different generation. A generation that could not begin to imagine the lives of my sons today – the instant access they enjoy, the corresponding reach that comes under the names of Google and U-tube and Facebook. Yes, these entities provide tremendous opportunity for our kids, but they rob them at the same time. They steal their anonymity, the essential ability previous generations enjoyed to make erasable mistakes. Because nothing in our children’s lives can be rubbed out today. Every mistake is photographed and posted in the indelible ink that permanently illustrates cyberspace.

So sometimes I question whether my ‘it’s o.k. to make mistakes’ is really the right advice. Am I setting my sons up for more serious failure down the line? Like when they seek admission to a university or to be hired for a job? How much will be held against them when an admission officer finds evidence of a poor decision, a party photo in questionable taste, or something worse, all on the permanent public record of their lives? Rationally I know such mistakes will be made – even that they should be made, that from them my boys will learn. But it is a different world. Mistakes are no longer lessons which one hopes to remember but hopes others forget. They are out there and they stay out there, just ask Anthony Weiner.

Unfortunately, protecting our kids is probably impossible. Keeping them off Facebook doesn’t help because you can't keep all their friends off it too. Eventually someone is going to post some photos whether your kids are on social media sites or not. So now I'm thinking the only solution is to create a party nickname/identity to be used for social purposes, a societal doppelganger if you will, which can then be abandoned when it’s time to resume their true identities as serious adults. They would have to maintain both. Using the true identity, they can post every award they've ever received, photos of them going in to take the SATs and coming out smiling, photos of sports competitions and charitable activities like teaching orphans to read.

Of course, those activities will only be part of the picture. So here is where the nickname identity comes into play. For all those other pursuits, less esteemed by admission officers, job recruiters, and those with the power to admit them into the next stage of their development, they will need to use the nickname identity. With this they will go to parties, they can be photographed in all the stupid rites of passage we once endured without lasting effects. You have to establish some basic ground rules for this identity, of course. I suggest wigs and dark glasses for girls and a wig and fake mustache for guys. I wonder what color I should buy?

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