At the beginning of each school year, parents often ask, “How can I help may child be successful in school this year?” I would like to recommend an often overlooked but crucial component of success -- making mistakes. Because we live in an age where we are afraid to let children fail and want them to be perfect (e.g., perfect attendance, perfect ACT score, perfect homework paper even if it means answering questions for the child), allowing them to make mistakes is sometimes a struggle.
I recall a mistake my daughter made many years ago when she was 15. She arrived home from school only to realize that she had left a book that she needed in her locker. Her older sister’s car was in the driveway, and the keys were on the piano. Without my permission, she decided to drive the car to school (even though she had never driven). On her way to school that was only two blocks from home, she hit a car and was transported by ambulance to the hospital. As I thought about how thankful I was that she survived and the people in both cars were going to be fine, people began asking how I was going to punish her because she needed to learn a lesson. In the next few days, I decided that it was far more important that this mistake not be wasted and that the lesson to be learned was not determined by my punishment. To help her learn from the mistake, I required her to write a letter to me sharing what she had learned from this mistake and then what she thought should be the consequence of her actions. She wrote a seven- page letter sharing all the lessons she had learned and recommended that she wait one more year before she was allowed to get her driver’s permit. The process of growing and learning from this horrible mistake was life-changing. Now, she is a successful attorney.
Despite a person’s mistake, success can be achieved if it is viewed as a natural part of learning. Many successful men and women have shared experiences when failures occurred and how the lessons learned helped to propel them to even greater feats. Even Thomas Edison had many misses before he invented the light bulb. It is not uncommon for parents to shield their children from making mistakes or to rescue them if one has been made. In doing so, children lose many opportunities to learn.
Why are mistakes an important part of maturation?
- Young people gain independence when permitted to make mistakes and then learn from them. For example, when your son doesn’t receive the Success Assembly homework reward for a missed assignment, don’t call the teacher and ask for the reward anyway. The value is lost when parents rush to rescue the child rather than help him/her find a solution.
- Making mistakes can also be used as building blocks for problem solving. Allowing children to make age-appropriate mistakes can actually improve confidence and the ability to solve problems.
- Mistakes can be turned into learning opportunities. It is thought that Post-it Notes were created from a mistake. In the 1960s, a 3M employee was attempting to invent a better adhesive tape, and he failed. Several years later, one of his colleagues was struggling to keep his bookmark from falling out of the church hymnal. He recalled the “not so sticky” glue his colleague had made and in 1980, Post-it Notes were created.
How can children learn to feel it is okay to make mistakes?
- Adults should model healthy responses to their own mistakes. If your daughter observes that you have a temper outburst when you make a mistake, she will view mistake-making as only negative.
- Provide empathy to your son when a mistake is made and avoid making shaming statements or recalling his previous mistakes. Use the GPS strategy. When I make a mistake in the direction I am going in my car, I am told calmly, “make a legal u-turn as soon as possible.” We can use the same strategy in our daily lives. Mistakes are inevitable, but a legal u-turn is needed as soon as possible.
- Encourage your child to take risks and make some mistakes along the way. At the dinner table, ask everyone to share at least one mistake made that day and what was learned from it. This helps your child to learn that mistakes are okay, especially when they hear that you make them and that you learned something in the process.
- Praise your children when they admit a mistake and did not blame someone for it.
When a child experiences failures or mistakes, the child is not a failure. John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach, is reported to have said, “You are not a failure until you start to blame.” With your help, your child can gain insight from a mistake and emerge as one who learns to accept responsibility for his/her actions and then progresses in maturity. So, encourage persistence, rather than perfection and allow your child the freedom to make some mistakes.