Home » Self Improvement

We All Learn by Falling Down or Negative Reinforcement is a Great Teacher

Mar 25, 2008
My editor and I were sitting on a bench on the edge of a park discussing my awkward syntax when we noticed a young boy walking with his father. At the edge of the swings and slide area was a wooden border about one foot high.

The little boy was balancing on this wooden mini-fence when he fell -- taking a tumble such as only an inexperienced and innocent two year old can manage. He landed on the asphalt sidewalk and was as startled as much as shaken.

Like a downed athlete he tried to gather himself as his father picked him up. The boy's surprise turned to fear when he saw the scrapes on his knee and elbow. Tears came to his eyes but he did not cry. His father made certain he was not injured and set him back down.

For several minutes the young boy stood there. Finally his father told him it was time to go and started walking away. The boy turned to the wooden border and stepped back up.

As he finished walking down the section he jumped triumphantly off with the flair of an athlete who had just scored. His face beamed with accomplishment.

This incident kept replaying in my head for several days. There were several points that kept standing out.

The first was the surprise the boy had when he fell. The pain, although intense, was not necessarily more than the surprise. The second was the father did not pick up his son and say the sorts of things like "it's all right" or "the hurt makes it better."

It clearly wasn't all right and the hurt did not make things better. Once the father realized his son had no real injury, he allowed his son to learn from the experience.

The son was allowed to deal with the reality himself and on his own terms. There is an old saying that goes "that which does not kill, strengthens..." Maybe it's something like that.

Then the boy climbed back up and continued the quest. The challenge and fun far outweighed perceived pain and risk even though he had been shaken and scared just moments before.

The joy he expressed when jumping off showed that not only had it been fun but he had overcome a significant challenge and was proud of that accomplishment.

There is a parallel in the workplace. A good manager lets his people take certain risks and fail. When they fail, the good manager does not chastise or degrade. The good manager allows her people to learn from their mistakes and failures and to try again.

Because the boy found the fortitude to try again he not only succeeded but gained the experience of facing an obstacle and overcoming it. Many parents and managers will not allow this simple process to take place.

By denying their children and employees opportunities to make mistakes they unwittingly force compliance and even silly over cautiousness. Good managers and good parents allow their employees and children to learn to help themselves.

The results in the workplace are clear. Those employees that are engaged enough to try new ideas are almost always better employees. Those employees that learn and improve are more productive.

And the same can probably be said for children...
About the Author
Jack Deal is the owner of JD Deal Business Consulting, Santa Cruz, CA. Related articles may be found at http://www.jddeal.com/blog/ideas and http://www.freeandinquiringmind.typepad.com
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