Breaking the "Perfection or Bust' Cycle this Mother's Day

This week we hosted our first-ever "Moms Who Code' event at our AppNexus NY office to celebrate the mothers in our lives and introduce them to coding through a fun, interactive activity. This was the first time some of these moms had ever tried to code. At Girls Who Code, we know parents play a huge role in getting girls interested in computer science, so it is really important that we support parents in their exploration of the field. And though exposure to computer science can be a major barrier for parents, as it turns out, so can be their mindsets about failure.

A new study came out this week that found that parents' attitudes toward failure were linked with how their kids thought about intelligence. The researchers found that parents who typically show anxiety and concern when their kids come home with a bad grade may be signaling to the child the belief that intelligence is mostly fixed. Parents who focus instead on learning from the bad grade signal to their kids that intelligence can be built through learning and improvement. Parents who tended to view failure as negative had children who were more likely to believe that intelligence is fixed. The more negative parents' attitudes were, the study found, the more likely their children were to see them as being concerned with performance as opposed to learning.

I talk about this 'perfection or bust' mindset we see amongst the girls in our program in my recent TED talk. The process of coding is a process of trial and error. You can't approach it with the mindset you'll never make a mistake because you will. We see girls immediately struggle with this when they start our programs. A student will call over the instructor to a blank text editor and say she doesn't know what code to write. If the instructor didn't know any better, she would think the student has spent this time staring at the screen, but in fact, if the instructor presses "UNDO" a few times, she will see the student wrote code and deleted it. She didn't get it exactly right, so instead of showing progress she'd rather show nothing at all. That's the perfection or bust mindset; I'd rather show nothing than show I tried and failed.

It has nothing to do with intelligence, it has to do with how she feels about failure.

Now imagine if she could approach the difficult situation - a new coding class, taking up a new sport, speaking in front of her class - from a mindset of excitement, of taking on a new challenge instead of fear. How could that change the trajectory of her learning experience? What new doors could that open for her? At Girls Who Code, we know many of the girls come to our programs afraid to fail. It's the reason we focus so much on collaboration and create an environment of support and sisterhood. We know we can't do this alone, and we know parents sometimes need our support just as much as our girls.

I've been approached by so many parents - particularly mothers - saying bravery and confidence is something they struggle with. They grew up in a household where they were socialized to be perfect. How do they break the cycle? How do they teach their daughter to get comfortable with failure if they themselves, still struggle with it? As a mother myself, I think awareness is really key and I also advise them that it's never too late to take on new challenges. I was in my 30s when I quit my job and ran for Congress. So often we're told it's ok to take these big career leaps when we're in our 20s, but we cast such an unfavorable light on those who take big risks later on in their careers or when they start families. There's enormous pressure to have it all figured out. How often do you see a mother in her 40s take a class in a completely new subject, or learn a new language? If we do, do we embrace her for trying something new or would we say she's going through some kind of identity crisis? Unfortunately, I think a lot of us would say the latter. And yet what an opportunity parents have to teach girls to get comfortable with failure by embracing new challenges in their own lives.

For our mothers out there, I challenge you to take on something new this Mother's Day. Let in the possibility of failure just a little bit and see how it impacts your approach to bigger challenges. And for daughters, instead of getting mom a card saying she's the 'perfect' mother this Sunday, let's embrace her for the perfectly imperfect person she is. Let's break the cycle of the 'perfection or bust' mindset once and for all.