Mistakes Are Part of Learning…

- October 8, 2021 -

WORDS: Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart, PBS KIDS for Parents

It’s so hard to watch our children struggle, fall, and even fail. However, for learning to take place, struggling and failing are part of the process. As parents, we want to protect our children from hardships, so we may think hovering and plowing through dangers up ahead will somehow help them.  

However, removing every potential obstacle takes away opportunities for our children to learn. And making mistakes is part of learning. 

Here are four reasons why making mistakes can actually be really good for your child. You might find as you read through this list, these strategies work really well for adults too! 

Making mistakes gives children realistic expectations about their abilities and skills.

What better way to know whether you are really good at something or not by trying it out? When you try something new, you learn several things about yourself and the new thing: you really like it, you really dislike it, you’re really good at it, you’re terrible at it, or maybe you can get really good at it or even like it if you keep at it. It’s hard to achieve this level of awareness of our abilities, skills, strengths, and weaknesses unless we fumble along the way.  

One way we can communicate to our kids after a mistake is by saying something like this: “I know math/dance/socializing has been so hard for you, and you feel like you keep messing up. When you’re learning something for the first time, it can feel that way. I’m here to help you. We’ll get through this. It’s okay if you make mistakes as you learn.” 

Making mistakes can increase opportunities for self-compassion. 

Making mistakes can either lead to negative self-statements (which results in a chipping away of one’s self-esteem and sense of self), or it can lead to gentleness and self-compassion (which is our desired outcome). Why is self-compassion so important? Because when we can make it a habit to see our errors right in front of us while exercising self-control and gentleness for those errors, we can release ourselves from having to perform to a certain standard.  

Self-compassion says: “Oops. That was not a mistake you wanted to make at all. That’s okay. That’s part of the learning process. Everyone makes mistakes eventually. Let’s figure out what went wrong, be patient with ourselves, and keep going. Or, we can choose to press pause and come back to it another time. We get to decide.” And don’t forget, this is something you can say to your child and to yourself! 

Making mistakes helps children find their voice. 

It would be very easy and pain-free if everything we did turned out well. For many of us, that is preferable. Struggling with something, experiencing embarrassment or judgment, and feeling overwhelmed or frustrated are not pleasant experiences at all. However, when we struggle, make mistakes, make adjustments, change our course, and eventually experience a more desirable result, we are able to truly find our voice.  

How would we know we are so passionate or interested in something unless we experienced all parts of the struggle and came out of it with a very different perspective? We might actually come out of the hardship with a zest for life, an appreciation for the skill, and understand the value of a friendship all because we made mistakes and came out on the other end. Our kids need to see us experience this too because then it gives them permission and comfort to know they’ll eventually find their voice too. 

Making mistakes reminds them they are not perfect. 

So often, children who lean toward trying to be perfect begin to learn that the only way to not fail is to never try. If they never try, they will never make a mistake. If they never make a mistake, then perfection has been achieved! Right? Wrong! Avoidance gives children a false sense they have dodged a major humiliation error.  

Truthfully, it only prolongs the inevitable. There is no guarantee that every decision will lead to a positive and desirable outcome every single time. That’s just not realistic. Thinking perfection can be achieved truly sets everyone up for failure. 

The truth is making mistakes is actually such a gift because then you learn, grow, and become stronger and more resilient over time. Its important children receive this message consistently. It might go something like this: “We do not expect you to be perfect at all. We know you will make mistakes. We make mistakes too.  

Everyone does eventually. Putting all that pressure on yourself to do school/sports/behavior right every single time is not realistic, and we don’t expect it of you. Please give yourself permission to let that expectation go.” 

Of course, this is a process and takes time. Helping your children understand the value of making mistakes is really important. Be sure to do the same for yourself, too, since our kids are always watching. You are their model, and they use you as a gauge to determine how to respond to hardships, successes, and setbacks. 

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