Burnt Pancakes

Written by Larisa A. White

When I first moved to California, I was befriended by a young family — a single father, Josh, and his two young daughters — who invited me over for a weekend brunch. The youngest girl, Simka, who was maybe six years old at the time, was cooking. The whole breakfast. All by herself. For the first time in her life. The menu was pancakes with syrup. I had never seen a child so excited.

As Josh and I sat sipping coffee at the kitchen table, waiting for breakfast to be served, I started to smell charring food. Burning batter. I looked over at the stove top where Simka was watching her pancakes cook, and saw smoke rising from the pan. Josh also glanced over at his daughter, to check on her progress, but he neither moved to help, nor made a sound. Unable to imagine why Josh was not offering to help his daughter out of an impending disaster (maybe he didn’t cook? I wasn’t really sure), I jumped up to offer my assistance, grabbing a spatula off the counter and reaching for the stove top controls.

“Hey, Simka! I think you might want to–”
Josh interrupted, “Larisa, can I speak to you in the living room?”
“Yes. Just a second. I’m just–”
“No. Right now, please.”
I handed Simka the spatula and hurried out of the room after Josh.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Simka is cooking breakfast today.”
“I know, but the pancakes were burning, and I thought–”
“Simka is cooking breakfast today. All by herself.”

Chastened, I nodded silently, and followed him back into the kitchen.

The house, as it turns out, did not burn down. And the child beamed with unshakable pride as she served her first batch of — thoroughly blackened — pancakes with syrup. But as she ate, she suddenly became pensive.

“What’s wrong?” asked Josh.
“They could taste better,” replied Simka, wrinkling her nose, “I think they’re a little burnt. Maybe I should use a smaller fire next time?”
“Good idea. Why don’t you try that out next week?” proposed Josh.
“Yeah!” Simka smiled.

And she did.

As I look back on that episode, and ponder what I now know about the process of learning, I have to say that was one of the best examples of good parenting that I have ever witnessed. What Josh taught Simka that day was that she had the power to improve the results of her own efforts, by assessing the quality of the products she created, and evaluating the process she used to create them. He was teaching her the joy and the process of learning. What I had been about to teach her, by offering to “help,” was that she was not really allowed to try things on her own, that she was likely to fail if she tried, and that failing to succeed perfectly on a first attempt was a disaster to be avoided at all costs. I had been about to teach her fear of failure.

Many parents, understandably, try to protect their children from failing, from stumbling, from risking embarrassment or discomfort. They want to teach their children how to do things right the first time, to help them succeed — just as I did. And with school curricula crammed full of ever-increasing content, teachers rarely have the time to allow their students multiple attempts at trying a new skill, before the test or assessment that passes final judgment. Students get one shot at it, with people watching, and their fate is sealed: they are good at making pancakes, or bad at making pancakes. Good cooks or bad cooks. A-students or D-students. With no motivation to try again, to change their strategy, or improve their skills. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the most interesting, and counter-intuitive findings that has emerged in several different program evaluations that I have done in the past 12 years (for different subjects, different demographics, and different colleges) is that students enjoy learning more, and end up producing better-quality work, when they are given the opportunity to fail, and learn from that failure, before the official test or assessment.

Fortunately, this is an opportunity that we can provide for ourselves:

Fail early.
Learn from the attempt.
And try a new strategy.

Go ahead. Try it. It’s how the experts do it.