166. Positive Thinking and Surrender

Children are frequently told that there’s no limit to what they can learn and do if they believe in themselves. I’ve sometimes seen a poster, in schools and other places, which shows birds flying, and says, “They can because they think they can.” The poster is supposed to help people believe in their own ability to overcome obstacles.
I, personally, wonder whether birds think about flying at all. I can think of several sentences that would make more sense to me than “They can because they think they can.” They can because they haven’t learned that they can’t. They can because of the Bernoulli effect. They
can because flying is what birds do. They can because they have wings. But no matter how positively we humans think about flying, we are all flying disabled; we need adaptive equipment – airplanes, helicopters, hang-gliders, etc. Positive thinking alone won’t do it. So, to some degree, I think we owe it to children to help them come to terms with what they can’t do yet, and even some things they’ll never be able to do. Effort can sometimes be rewarded with stickers and kudos, but if it doesn’t eventually get rewarded by success, it can lead to great frustration, defeatism, and depression. Failure breeds failure just as much as success breeds success.
We also owe it to children to make sure limitations are real before we start teaching them these limitations. Glenn Cunningham was told that he would never walk again, and he subsequently broke the record for running a mile. Some people see that story as an example of the triumph of the human spirit, and to some degree, I agree. But I also see it as an example of how wrong some prognoses can be. So far, medical science is not an exact science, and I think at least some of the success of faith-healing, Christian Science, etc. has to do with inaccurate diagnoses and prognoses.
I’m trying to find the right balance between positive thinking and surrender for myself. On the one hand, I believe that I’ll be able to walk again. I can still take a few steps, and somehow, I’ll get so I can walk a mile. On the other hand, I try to arrange to have the equipment, housing, and support I’ll need if I get so I can walk even less. I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
Children will learn, and they need to know that. And they also have limitations – both temporary and permanent. They need to know that, too. Neither children nor we know, for sure, which are their limitations and which kinds of learning lie ahead. But we do owe it to children to both encourage them to do what we’re pretty sure they can do, and to help them come to terms with what they can’t do.

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