If you’re like me, you admire and strive for efficiency. You don’t really want to move that pile of papers 7 times before they get filed. If you paint your kitchen, you want to get the color right the first time. And if you’re making decisions about your child’s medical care, or where to live, or what preschool to attend, you don’t want to make commitments that you’ll regret.
But it’s often very difficult to divine a “good enough” solution to a problem, let alone the optimal one. And I wonder if conscientious, thinking parents are unrealistic about the chances of getting things right the first time, or even the second or third time. Life just isn’t like that. Not for humans living in complex societies with an array of freedoms and constraints.
It’s different if you’re a barn swallow – those astonishingly swift, swooping, elegant little birds with the tail streamers and gorgeous cinnamon-and-sapphire colors.
These birds have to make decisions, and they aren’t stupid. But when it’s time to build a nest, or feed the kids, they don’t have to agonize about what to do and how to do it. Studies suggest their mud nests are built with the guidance of instinct. And when the eggs have hatched, the routine is straightforward. Catch insects, swoop home, and tuck the food into any and all open mouths you find.
The steps are scripted and familiar. There are no guilty calculations about whether to take time out for a healthful meal or grab some fast food. There are no worries about where to put that IKEA bookcase that didn’t really work out as a hallway shoe organizer, or how to get your restless kids to start their homework before you get too tired to help them. Life is relatively simple, and the rules haven’t changed for thousands—maybe even millions—of years. So you stick to the plan.
And here’s the thing. If these birds build their nests and feed their offspring guided by instinct, they do so because instinct works well. A flexible, anything-is-possible, what-should-I-do, Hamlet-sort-of-swallow would make too many mistakes. He’d try building his nest on the ground, or second-guess his kids’ hunger cues, and blow his chances of raising a successful brood before his brief lifespan comes to an end.
In other words, he screws up in all those ways that we screw up. He’d get things wrong the first time and maybe the second and third times, too. He’d waste time, energy, and make a mess.
But we don’t work that way. There are too many changing opportunities in the human world. There is no simple set of rules that’s going to cover every case. So we’ve evolved massively complex, flexible minds, and we aren’t born with instinctive behavior patterns that tell us how to build a house or how to feed our kids. We’ve got to experiment, explore, learn. And that means making mistakes.
Many of us understand this when we watch our babies learn. Young children need to push, pull, poke, probe, dismantle, and otherwise test their environments to figure things out. It’s messy. It inevitably leads to waste. But if we take away that freedom from children, we stunt their intellectual development. Kids can’t learn if they aren’t allowed to make mistakes.
Is the situation so different for adults? Not really. Sure, we can reduce the chance of error by observing other people’s solutions, or by applying theories we’ve tested in the past. But there will always be a first time, there will always be uncertainty. So unless something very unlikely happens, you are going to make a lot of mistakes.
And no, having multiple kids doesn’t eliminate the problem. You might be a smarter parent the second, third, or fourth time around, and there’s no doubt that veteran parents have a big advantage. But kids can vary a lot, too. So what you learned with your first children isn’t always helpful for coping with your second. Back to the drawing board. More trial. More error. More mess.
So let’s be clear on this point. Almost every time we try something new, we’re going to make a mess. Learning is wasteful. But it’s the price we pay for a flexible, creative, problem-solving intelligence.
Is the freedom to make mistakes (and messes) a prerequisite for developing scientific intelligence? Maybe. See my post “Be permissive, raise a scientist.”
image of spilled milk © adrian brockwell / istock
image of swallow chicks © Eric Kilby / wikimedia commons
image of adult swallow © Dori / wikimedia commons
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