The Importance of Making Mistakes

By Kelly Bartlett, certified positive discipline educator and leader for Portland API, Oregon USA

So often, as parents, we try to prevent our kids from making mistakes. We issue warnings, reach out to help, or just do a job ourselves because we don’t want the hassle of fixing a mistake like a spill, fall, or ill-thought decision. But making mistakes is valuable and necessary for a child’s learning and development of self-confidence. How we handle mistakes can teach children that challenges are either threats to be avoided, or that they can be opportunities to learn and develop strong mastery skills.

A “rescuing” parent does just that: either rescues a child from a problem she has encountered, or anticipates a problem and prevents it from happening. For the sake of our children’s developing sense of self-efficacy, we do not want to do this. It may make our job easier for the moment if we complete a task ourselves, rather than give our child the job along with its accompanying opportunity to mess up. And we might also think our children will love us more for it; cleaning up their mistakes rather than turning the responsibility for repair around on them. But as Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It, says, “Parenting is neither an efficient profession nor a popularity contest.”

Aside from rescuing kids from their problems, washing our hands of them — that is, ridding ourselves of any involvement (which may or may not be accompanied by a healthy dose of berating) — is equally unhelpful. It sends the message that kids are incompetent and incapable, and that we are not there to help them when they make a mistake. Sometimes our children will get into a problem that is over their heads and, with our help, their mistakes will turn into incredible learning opportunities!

We need to be supportive and encouraging of our kids’ mistakes. We need to see mistakes for what they are: one more chance to boost self-confidence by allowing for critical thinking and problem solving.  What we need is not a balance between rescuing and washing our hands, but a third choice all together: focusing on solutions. When a mistake has been made, is it more important to look for blame or to figure out how to fix it? Instead of spouting off about carelessness, immaturity, or inconvenience (which are always the first exasperated thoughts that come to mind), try asking “What are we going to do about it? What can I do to help? What are you going to do? What are some options we could try?”

Though the steps involved in problem solving are not always fun for kids, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction in themselves that follows offers a big reward. Children begin to see problems as challenges to be mastered, not threats to be avoided.

Teaching kids practical life skills includes giving them opportunities to make mistakes. Though it can be tempting to rescue our kids from making any mistakes, it is more important to be able to explore the consequences of them. When a child has made a mistake, avoid the temptation to lecture, blame, or shame them. Rather, we can help our kids understand the situation by invoking their help in solving the problem. Instead of shrinking away from difficulty, kids will have confidence in themselves and learn that they can successfully tackle any obstacle throughout life.

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