Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Courage To Screw Things Up

A close friend recently found herself a divorced woman, living alone in a large, older home with her daughter after some 30 years of marriage. One day she said to me, "I'm sick of calling R (her ex) every time something needs to be fixed around the house. He always took care of all of that stuff, we're divorced, and he's still doing it." For a moment I thought she was leading up to asking me to help her with a household project, but instead she said, "I need to learn to do these things for myself so I went out and bought a tool kit. I have screwdrivers, a hammer, pliers and a wrench. What else do I need?"

I almost started in on a list of what she was missing, which in my eyes was a long one, but thankfully I stopped myself. I've never gone out a "bought a tool kit," but rather accumulated my collection of tools over decades, some of which I've been using since I was in college. I've never been a tool collector like a lot of guys I know. Every tool I own came into my life because there was something I wanted to make or fix and I needed it to get the job done. Instead, I answered her, "When you run into something you can't do with those tools, call me and we'll figure out what you need."

In a post about making a tree part construction set I mentioned that I was reading Mark Frauenfelder's book Made By Hand, an accounting of his personal journey from an "hire an expert" to a "do-it-yourself" lifestyle. Part how-to, part coming of age, and very much a philosophical examination of how we modern humans spend our time on the planet, I'd recommend this book to anyone asking themselves, "What's missing?" even if you've never picked up a tool in your life.

As a cooperative school, we rely on parent-teachers to manage our various stations around the classroom. Almost every day since we introduced the "construction/tinkering" station to our daily mix, someone, usually a mom, has expressed discomfort with some aspect of working in that area. I think it's the word "construction" that gets them, and they're mostly concerned that their lack of experience in this traditionally masculine discipline will somehow lead to children injuring themselves, but they are also, I believe, giving voice to their fear of failure, which is what Frauenfelder identifies as the greatest impediment most of us face in taking on a DIY project. 

Early on in his journey, Frauenfelder is interviewing a man who goes by the name Mr. Jalopy, asking him about his legendary knack for "turning other people's trash into treasure."

"People think it's unusual, what I do. I don't even think of it as what I do. I'm just living. What I do is the same as cooking or gardening. The difference is the perception of the barrier to entry. People are afraid that they're going to screw something up, that they're going to ruin something. And unfortunately, it's valid -- they will. You will screw stuff up. Things will be broken. But that's the one step to overcome to get on the path of living this richer life of engagement, of having meaningful connections to the objects around you. It's that necessary step you have to take -- the courage to screw things up -- so you're able to fix things, or to make stuff from scratch, or to refurbish stuff to live according to your standards."

I'm so happy that so many of the parents of Woodland Park are having to summon up that courage alongside their children. What an incredible thing it is to have teachers who are learning right along with them, figuring things out, thinking things through, and screwing things up. In fact, the very idea of putting hammers, saws, drills and even some power tools into the hands of children as young as 2 takes a kind of tinkerers courage that requires a leap of faith about the capabilities of both yourself and your child.

One of the most rewarding moments I've ever had as a teacher was a message from Alex's mom Maya who told me that her daughter had asked to use the hammer at home. When she was finished she asked, "Can we keep the hammer outside just in case I need to use it again?"

I suspect she'll never need to go out a buy a tool kit.

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Deborah said...

As I was reading your post, it reminded me also of technology in general. The other day, my nephew walked over to my lap top and touched the mouse. My daughter immediately said, "no, no Wyatt," for fear he might mess something up. The teachers at the schools are afraid to push buttons on their own computers for fear they might mess something up. And the excuse for not having technology- whether it may be a hammer or a computer is often that something might just get messed up. I agree with you - instead of making a list of all we need but never use (because something might get messed up) - We should gather our tools as we go along, actually use them, and if they get messed up - then we will learn to fix it:) Yes you sparked a cord with me this morning!!

Teacher Tom said...

I think you're spot on Deborah. This goes for cooking, sewing, crafting, building, computers, art . . . everything that requires us to use any kind of tool (which is really just the old word for technology, right?). I mean, I'm a pretty good cook now, but I burned a lot of stuff learning how to do it! =)

Anonymous said...

This is so true, as a single mom with 4 children, i became very good at messing up and then getting it right; and the journey to accepting that was difficult but rewarding in the end. it has evolved into understanding and delighting in children's need to use things in ways that we probably have never consdidered. said...

Haha - I am still at the burning stage.

Anonymous said...

Letting yourng kids learn this process - screwing up, getting frustrated, thinking your way to another solution, trying again 0 is an awesome lesson in real life. It's wonderful to hear what you do at your coop. I find, as a parent, I often avoid giving things to my kids that I know will be hard for them, make them scream with frustration, because I always think I have to prevent and stop the screaming. I am learning to let them scream with frustration, name the feeling, suggest trying again then or later. ANd its working wonders. My kids get frustrated with lego and things like that. Hammers - under their beds!

Scott said...

You are so right, Tom. I love for kids to take some risks and make some mistakes as they find out how things work or how to accomplish their ideas. And yet, I avoid using tools since I can create a lot of chaos with them. (And I'm a guy!) But, when I have ventured into that realm, I do accomplish some things...and learn a lot of things. You have inspired me--by recent posts including this one--to try more of those things. Although I'm not sure my wife is ready for me to use power tools...maybe just the hand tools for now!

kelly said...

I'm a follower of your blog and normally read through Google Reader, but today I had to click on your blog and leave a comment.

You spoke of "fear of failure" with regards to DIY - I feel this with baking! I am a 32 year old woman who, until six months ago, would not bake a loaf of bread for fear of screwing it up. I realised how stupid this sounded when chatting with other Mums.

I will happily home educate my kids - which plenty of people see as very risky - but wouldn't mix some ingredients together....madness.

So now I try and more often than not fail, but it's OK, because it's a process and I will get there one day.

Thanks for this and many other posts - I love your blog.

Kristi said...

I have three girls. Three granddaughters to a man who had very little patience with teaching me how to use tools. As a result, I've always had the curiosity but never the training with power tools. Dad and my husband were more than willing to take my plans and ideas and make them into reality. In the last few months, I've found and a close friend who wanted to make a project together. We planned, we purchased, became very good friends with the cabinet maker who moonlighted (moonlit?) at Home Depot, studied and played with power tools, messed up, tried again, messed up AGAIN, tried again and finally finished adirondack chairs for our kids. Then we started on the finish....

Both of us agree that we learned more from the mistakes than doing it right. The confidence that we built and the joy that I have every time my kids or husband tells people, "My wife/mommy made these all by herself" is incredible.

The girls are "helping" me build them a toy chest. We have decided that a distressed finish may be best with all the wonderful nail and hammer marks.

Akemanartist said...

Yeah something like this would make me nervous but my four year old, almost five, wants to crack the egg and put it in the frying pan. I figured out that the best time to have her do it is right before the pan gets hot enough for the oil to splutter. She wants to try all sorts of stuff and it's really a prime time for learning, they are interested and eager, it will take a lot of supervision of course but you are teaching them skills to be independent, as someone once said, part of the job as parent is to work yourself out of business.