Life is Practice

by Shelby Murphy

“Me gusta comprar con Mama y Papa…” A seemingly innocent phrase with a catchy melody, until you’ve heard it 846 times -- the sum total of instances I’ve climbed into the car and my daughter yelled from the back seat, “Spanish tape, please!” It’s a cute little ditty that has taken my thoughts hostage and demanded in ransom that it be the only thing circulating in my brain during business meetings or romantic interludes with my husband.

Yes, my four-year-old and I are learning Spanish together. I’ve always wanted to learn the language -- it seems more useful living in Central Texas than the German I gagged down in college -- and Jett has already taken to the bits and pieces of Spanish she learned in preschool.

But the hard thing about learning a language is that if you are ever to become proficient at it, you eventually have to speak it… to someone else. That means singing with a child’s Spanish tape is fine, learning from books is good, but at some point you must take the risk of sounding like a complete moron in front of perfect strangers.

I've never been eager to subject myself to public humiliation and speaking a foreign language has an uncanny knack for making a person feel like a fool. Unless you're four. Then you don't worry about pronouncing every word correctly. You just let the letters fly and syllables fall where they may. And if you don't know the Spanish word you're looking for -- what the heck -- just make it up. Mommy doesn't know much Spanish but the word cowla, which Jett adamantly affirmed meant cow, left me a bit suspect.

I have to admire her freedom from the stranglehold of ego, however. She, like all other children her age, has the astounding ability to accept that she is less than perfect. It doesn't matter whether she is learning Spanish, learning to count, learning to ride a bike, or learning to do a cartwheel, she understands that repeated failure is a part of learning.

We don't call it failure when a child learns, however. Of course children must try, try again when they are learning something new. Walking didn't happen without lots of falls. The alphabet didn't stick without lots of practice.

No, we reserve those harsh words like failure for ourselves. At some point in human development (adolescence is my best guess), we decide that if we can't get it right the first time, then it isn't worth doing. Because try, mess up, try again is embarrassing, and sometimes costly. It’s as if try your best somehow mutated into the twisted idea that everybody else expects perfection.

When young children face an unfamiliar task, say riding a bike, they may be reluctant to learn because they fear bodily injury. I'd call that a pretty healthy fear (and I think I'd get an affirmative nod from the process of natural selection!) But kids don't fret over the possibility of looking like a fool or appearing like they don't have everything under their control.

I asked Jett how she would feel if she tried a handstand in front of her friends and fell over. "I guess I would still need a little practice," she said. No, I'd be so embarrassed I couldn't show my face or I'd never try another handstand again. Just a little more practice.

When adults face an unfamiliar task, on the other hand, we most likely fear failure itself and what we think it might say about us. We're basically scared to death to make a mistake and show the world that we're not perfect. I'd call that an unhealthy fear -- one that, at best, keeps us from fully enjoying life and, at worst, keeps us from living our purpose.

Look around… you'll see what I mean. Who sits on the sidelines at the backyard volleyball match because she's never been the best athlete? Who never makes suggestions at company meetings because his ideas might not be what the boss had in mind? Who doesn't ask the pediatrician questions because he might think she's an unskilled mother? Who doesn't start her own business because things might not work out? And who orders her lunch in English when the waiter clearly speaks Spanish because her tongue might fail her?

La vida verdadera es la practica -- life is practice. Common knowledge to the average four-year-old. It's too bad we adults speak a different language.

While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.
-- Henry C. Link
About the Author:
Shelby Murphy is a freelance writer, columnist, and mother of two. Her work has been published nationally and circulates the globe online. In 2001, she started RadiantWomen, an online and syndicated print column for women who live life on purpose. For a free subscription or more information, contact Shelby at or