The Value of Negative Experience

Image Credit: Mel Kadel

Dr. Corinne Masur

Stacey Abrams tells the story of having been the Valedictorian of her high school class and, as result, being invited to the Governor’s mansion for a reception (as all valedictorians were in Georgia at that time).  When she and her parents arrived at the gates of the mansion the guard turned them away.  He said they did not belong there.  He refused to look at the list of valedictorians. It was not until Stacey’s father insisted that the guard checked the list and begrudgingly admitted them.  Twenty-four years later, Stacey Abrams decided she wanted to run for the office of governor of Georgia so that she could control those gates.

A young adult patient of mine told me a story that is similar in some ways.  In seventh grade she did very poorly in her Latin class.  The school had her tested and the psychologist who performed the evaluation told her that she would never be able to learn a language due to a learning disability.  When this young woman went to college, she made it a point to take Spanish every semester and to do several study abroad programs in Spanish speaking countries.  After she graduated from college, she got a better job than she had expected, based partly on the fact that she was now bilingual!

Some negative experiences, some experiences of criticism or humiliation or deprivation or limitation can actually provide the motivation for some children and teenagers to achieve. Such experiences can be formative in regard to how children develop, in determining who they decide they want to be and what they decide they want to do. Being told “no”, being told “you may not do this” or “you cannot do this” can lead some children to decide that they CAN and they WILL.  The anger and the hurt these children experience can be channeled into a powerful drive to prove those who said “no” wrong!

As parents most of us carry the burden of feeling we need to smooth our children’s way, of protecting them from hardship or pain. And of course, it IS the job of parents to keep our children alive and to maximize their chances of healthy development.

But is it healthy for children to always experience a smooth path?  To never meet with a failure or a “no”?

Is it best to try to protect children from every possible insult or danger?

I think not.  And furthermore, I believe this mind set leads to our fear/belief that the current pandemic and the limitations it has imposed will stunt our children’s educational, emotional and social development.

Life provides all sorts of experiences – for most of us these include success AND failure and everything in between.  We learn from our successes and perhaps we learn even more from our failures, our mistakes and the rejections and limitations we experience.  And we can be motivated by any of these experiences, not just the positive ones. 

Recently a post, supposedly by a superintendent of schools, went around on social media. She or he said:

“One of my biggest fears for the children when they return … is that in our determination to “catch them up,” …we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era … It is necessary to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” … They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework … Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time. The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives—in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken”.

These are wise words. Our children will be different because of the pandemic, but they will have learned things during this time. They may not be as versed in the school subjects that they might have mastered had it not been for the pandemic, but they WILL have better tech skills (video games, and social media); they will better know how to navigate the internet, they will be well versed in connecting with others via online platforms, they will know how to occupy themselves better. Moreover, they will have experienced frustration and boredom and disappointment – and they will have survived. They will know that they can endure difficult times and heart-breaking disappointments and losses.

The children and the adults who are fortunate enough to live through this pandemic will not only have been limited and deprived and frustrated, they will also have been inspired in ways that we can only imagine right now.

Who knows how many children and teenagers and young adults will have been motivated to go into medicine, nursing, epidemiology, game and social platform design?

Who knows how many will say a resounding NO to the pandemic and find ways to fight or prevent future events of this kind?

Who knows how many friendships and social gathering will be created out of the sheer joy of freedom that is felt after the vaccine has been distributed and children are freer again to experience the social world?

None of us know the answers to these questions – but I am quite sure there will be many, many people motivated to make the world a more connected and safer place once this pandemic is over, just as Stacy Abrams was motivated to run for governor and my young patient was motivated to learn Spanish well enough to be considered bilingual!

Listen here for more on this topic:

https://www.npr.org/2021/01/07/954479010/listen-again-school-of-life

2 thoughts on “The Value of Negative Experience

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