Sometimes Learning is Painful

Last December, while my brother’s family was visiting for the holidays, I got to watch my then 8-month-old nephew Gray work on standing up. He would repeatedly try to stand up, grabbing at whatever he could for support. Inevitably, though, he would lose his balance and fall. Sometimes, he would bonk his head in the process. Ouch! But Gray was resilient, and he kept on trying, and the pain surely motivated his brain to learn better balance.

The next phase – learning how to walk – is no less painful. Learning to walk involves repeatedly failing. Luckily, as a baby, you don’t have very far to fall. Learning to walk is, of course, essential. And pain is an essential part of that learning process. Your brain is strongly motivated to avoid pain, so each fall sends a signal to the brain that yells, “Hey brain! Figure this whole walking thing out already!”

You probably do remember learning to ride a bike. This, too, must have entailed painful falls. And these painful falls also sent a strong signal to your brain that it needed to figure out how to balance on two wheels. This principle extends far beyond learning to walk or ride a bike. Pain is a uniquely strong motivator for learning. It is one way to convince your brain to care. This is why we learn so well from mistakes and failures – they hurt!

And this is why we want parents to resist the temptation to rescue their children from painful mistakes and failures, especially the academic ones. For example, the embarrassment and frustration of having to go to summer school because he failed a class might be exactly the motivation your son needs to figure out how to do the work and learn the material. If you rescue him from failing, you might only be postponing this important lesson.

Not all learning is painful, of course, and there’s no reason to go out of your way to make it painful. The key is, when learning happens to be painful, to act like a baby and keep trying in the face of repeated failure. Don’t let the pain of learning something difficult lead to avoidance. That will only make matters worse. You could easily slip into a downward spiral of avoidance, where learning becomes progressively more painful as you fall further and further behind. When you finally realize what’s happened and try to recover, you’ll be facing a brutal, uphill battle.

And even if you somehow manage to avoid pain at school, you won’t avoid it elsewhere. Pain is a natural part of the human experience. It’s the mechanism through which we learn some of our most important lessons. It’s how we gain access to some of our most enjoyable moments and our most meaningful memories. On the ride of life, pain is the price of admission.

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