We have a strange way of talking in our home. My husband and I don’t tell our kids they’re smart, but praise them for their effort and strategy. We love difficult homework and think anything challenging is the best thing ever. And we teach our kids about learning through mistakes.
How to teach our kids about learning through mistakes
This can seem bizarre when even the most motivated of adults don’t like mistakes. Mistakes are hassles, setbacks, and keep us from reaching our goals as quickly as we’d hoped. Wouldn’t it be better if we got it right the first time? Not always.
Mistakes offer a wealth of benefits:
- Mistakes humble our kids. No one’s perfect, and kids need to realize they can never nor should aspire to be. We don’t achieve our goals immediately and instead go through many mistakes and practice.
- Mistakes focus on the process, not the final outcome. The journey to the goal is more beneficial than getting to the end by any means necessary. You wouldn’t want your child to isolate her classmates just so she can get the highest score.
- Mistakes encourage kids not to give up. Raising kids with grit and perseverance requires making mistakes to reach goals.
- Mistakes help your child find solutions. Rather than feeling defeated, she’ll see where she could improve or what she did wrong to correct it.
So, how can we help kids embrace mistakes?
Say outright that mistakes are our best teachers.
“We learn from mistakes,” my six-year-old has said more than once. We’ve ingrained the idea of mistakes as teachable moments often.
Rarely do we reach our accomplishments on the first try. No great figures got to the top in one day. Instead, we learn from mistakes. They show us the steps we shouldn’t do or how to do them differently. They reveal what works and the tactics we should reconsider.
Mistakes aren’t stumbling blocks or failures. Think of them as teachers showing you a new or different way.
Watch your reaction to your child’s mistakes.
“Oh, man,” I lamented when I saw that my two-year-old had peed all over the floor. Even though he should’ve been sitting on the potty, he managed to pee everywhere else but the potty. “You didn’t pee on the potty. You peed everywhere!” My disappointment was palpable.
“Don’t worry,” my husband reminded everyone, particularly me. “Accidents happen. Let’s not focus so much on the mistake and make him feel bad about it.”
Immediately I got his point. I needed to put my disappointment aside so it doesn’t color my son’s view of mistakes and accidents. Because a potty mishap is as accident as they get.
Our reaction to our kids’ mistakes can send various messages. Let’s say you told your child to put her dishes in the sink. Except she didn’t just ‘put’ them in, she threw them, assuming that’s how it’s done. As a result, a glass that had been sitting in the sink shattered.
You can reprimand her for her mistake. She’d know she did something wrong and caused a glass to break. She may even feel ashamed or confused since she thought she was following instructions.
What if instead you kept your disappointment brief and focused on what she could do next time? You could show her how to put her dish in the sink gently. You could have her try again, this time without throwing. You show that while mistakes happen, they can also serve a purpose. She learned what not to do without feeling ashamed.
Focus on the positive outcomes of mistakes.
When a child makes a mistake, say, “That’s interesting!” or “Look at that,” first.
This response doesn’t always apply to all mistakes. I can’t imagine me saying “That’s interesting!” when my child peed all over the floor or smashed a glass in the sink. But let’s look at another example:
Let’s say your child was playing the piano. She needed to play a particular song as outlined in the sheet music. Except she didn’t. It seemed no matter how many times she tried, she couldn’t get the sequence right.
What if, instead of immediately correcting her ‘mistake,’ you say, “That’s interesting!” Maybe you can use the mistake as an opportunity to create a different sequence. Or work on how to use that bit she did in another piece.
Yes, you’ll want to correct and practice her mistake so she can play the song. But present her mistake not as something to feel embarrassed about. Instead, it’s something that could develop into something else magnificent.
Teach your child how to cope with frustration.
Ah, the frustration. That can be the most difficult aspect of mistakes for children. And the most patience-testing for us parents. Because no matter how much we embrace mistakes, they can still suck, big time. Imagine putting so much effort but still getting mistakes. Trying to solve a math problem that makes no sense. Figuring out a puzzle to no avail.
Mistakes are inevitable, no doubt. So we need to teach our kids how to cope with their ensuing frustration. Here are a few ways your child can deal with frustration:
- Ask for help. When something feels difficult, let your child know she can always ask for help. Asking doesn’t mean she failed or is incompetent. Some tasks are beyond her developmental stage. Some may be so new she doesn’t have any idea how to solve them.
- Take a break. I tell my kids all the time that when they get frustrated, it’s time to take a break. A quick one-minute break can be all they need to gather their thoughts. They can restart and perhaps see the task in a different way. And they won’t approach it with so much vehemence but with patience instead.
- Give them a hug. Coping with frustration sometimes means getting non-verbal support. Hold your child and let her crumple in your arms. This release may be all she needs to cope with the frustration.
- Teach them that mistakes are inevitable. We all make mistakes. Knowing she’s not alone can reassure your child she’s not a failure.
- Encourage her to learn from the mistake. Rather than mulling the mistake, see what she can learn from it instead.
Admit your own mistakes.
We won’t send the message that mistakes are okay when we deny the ones we make. Instead, fess up each time you make one.
Your mistakes can be as simple as spilling water on the table, or making a mess when you dropped a dish on the floor. Maybe admitting mistakes runs deeper, like apologizing to your child for yelling.
You can also describe times in your life when you made mistakes. While you don’t want to glorify them, you can mention a few of the simpler ones so your child doesn’t feel alone.
Admitting our mistakes shows that everyone makes them. They don’t define who we are. Rather, we can use them to our advantage by learning from them.
Don’t rescue your child from all his mistakes.
Let’s say your child has a favorite Lego figure. You’ve reminded her many times to keep her figure in the same place after playing with it so she doesn’t lose it. Because we know how difficult it can be to find a tiny figure in a sea of Lego.
Except your child still didn’t take your advice. And one day, she can’t find the little figure no matter how hard she searches.
And so she asks you buy her another one. If you do, you’d end the frustration, the whining, the arguing. But doing so only rescues her from her mistakes and won’t hold her accountable.
When we rescue our kids from all their mistakes, we deny them the opportunity to learn. She won’t take you seriously the next time about keeping her special figures in the same place. After all, she knows you’ll always buy her another one to replace it.
Instead, hold your child accountable. Teach her how to cope with frustration (as outlined above). Make clean up part of her routine so she learns ways to get organized. We won’t be able to (nor should we) rescue our kids from life’s disappointments. Teaching them how to cope and learn from mistakes is a much more valuable tool than rescuing them each time.
Praise your child for admitting or fixing his mistakes.
“Why is he crying?” I asked my kids, referring to my two-year-old who had run to me in tears.
“He got hurt,” my then five-year-old responded.
“Um… I hit him with the ball.”
My older son had just admitted he made my son cry. I didn’t launch into a lecture or teachable moment about why we don’t throw balls at others’ faces. I praised him for being honest and fessing up first.
Admitting our mistakes is hard. I have a difficult time confessing where I had gone wrong or the part I played in an argument. When you notice your child admitted his mistake, praise him—thank him—for doing so.
This doesn’t encourage him to misbehave. He won’t think, “Wow, mom praised me for being honest. I’m going to hit my brother in the face again!” You’ll of course want to follow up your praise with what he can or can’t do with hitting. But he’ll recognize that telling the truth was right, even if hitting was wrong.
Teach your child to find the reason behind her mistakes.
Mistakes are only our best teachers when we teach our kids to find their lessons. They can’t teach us anything if we don’t dig deep and find out where we went wrong.
Staring at homework despite your child’s many mistakes won’t reveal the answer. Instead, we have to analyze where the struggle begins so we can best correct it.
Maybe your child continues to forget her library book every week. No matter how many times she does it, she can’t seem to remember to bring her books every Tuesday. Help her better develop the habit of putting the books in her bag. Maybe that means adding it to a calendar. Or writing a note to herself and taping it to the wall.
Finding the reason behind the mistake—and learning to fix it—is the only way she can learn from them.
We learned how important mistakes can be and how to encourage our kids to embrace making mistakes. All these strategies boil down to one thing: the way we view and talk about mistakes.
Learn to see mistakes as inevitable. We all make mistakes, throughout our lives. Our kids are no exception. Mistakes are also learning moments. Don’t see them as something to feel embarrassed or ashamed about. Instead, think of them as a learning tool. And finally, mistakes shape how we continue to succeed in life. Mistakes change how we function. We can correct our mistakes and practice the better way over and over until we get it right.
So you see, mistakes aren’t that bad. From simple to large mistakes your child will face, they’re the best teachers.
Get more tips on how to handle your child’s mistakes:
- How to Respond when Your Child Makes a Mistake
- Teach Your Child the Value of a Job Well Done
- How to Raise a Smart Child
- How to Prepare Your Child for College (Because It’s Not Too Early)
- Teaching Resilience and Perseverance: How to Raise Kids with Grit
A fantastic children’s book that encourages children to embrace mistakes is The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett.
Tell me in the comments: How do you view mistakes your child makes? How do you encourage your kids to embrace mistakes?