I messed up, Mom & Dad! 10 Ways to Teach Children to Embrace Their Mistakes

It may seem counter-intuitive, but kids need to fall on their face a lot during childhood. It’s part of learning.

A parent got in touch with me recently and told me with some pride that she is the infamous “helicopter parent” that she’s heard me talk about on my blog and in the media. “I like being ‘there’ for my child 100% of the time. To me, that’s part of being a good parent…what kind of parent would I be if I knew they were heading for a mess up and just let it happen anyway?”

Interesting. You see, “messing up” is part of “growing up.” And an important one at that. Unless you are sensing inherent danger (when of course you would intervene), life needs to happen to a child so s/he can learn how to make good choices for his or herself—and that, when problems happen, it’s not the end of the world.

Towers made of blocks tumble. You don’t always get the straw you want. Your favorite shirt gets dirty. You say the wrong thing to your best friend. Homework and art projects may get ripped when you leave them out where your baby brother can get to them.

Life happens. You rebuild. You accept what you can not change or choose to go a different way. You apologize, take responsibility and ask for forgiveness. You clean up your mess. You take care of your stuff.

These lessons are not taught through osmosis. Reading about them in books may give you the knowledge but not the cognitive- kinesthetic- emotional connection. We learn about life through experience. The parenting aspect doesn’t come from the “saving” but rather, what happens before, during and after the mistakes happen.

When teaching your children about mistakes:

  1. Encourage healthy risk-taking: A sad sight is a child who stands on the sidelines of life because they are so afraid to try and fail. Talk to your children about taking healthy risks that push them out of their comfort zone and provide learning, fun and growth. Support them by saying things like; “The most important thing is that you try!” “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” “You’ll never know unless you try!” and “Everything you love to do began when you took a risk and tried!”
  2. Applaud the chutzpah, effort and character rather than just the result: If it’s all about the win, the A, the goal scored or the lead in the play, fear of trying certainly can follow. Instead, celebrate the courage it took to try. Applaud the effort it took to achieve. Highlight the character it took to persevere and stay focused. Say; “one thing I know about you is that when you decide on a goal, you go all the way. You stay on track and keep going until you get there—and I, for one, think that is AMAZING!”
  3. Let them know mistakes are normal and an important part of learning! Assure your children that making mistakes is OK. Most things are not done perfectly the first time—even when you’re an adult. It doesn’t mean “the end of the world” and there is no reason to be embarrassed. Ask them; what does this mistake teach you? What will you know for next time? What will you know next time that you didn’t know before? Mistakes make you wiser not lesser!
  4. Share your mistakes with them: I’m not talking about full disclosure of every bad thing you’ve done. However, you can share mistakes you made when you were young, how you handled them and what you learned from them. You can also share how these mistakes prepared you for the next time you were faced with a similar challenge or choice. Children often think their parents are perfect—we must show that we are not infallible…and that we can still be successful anyway!
  5. Apologize & show accountability in action: One of the most powerful things we can do when we make a mistake is to show our children how to be accountable for it, apologize, and do what we can to fix the problem we created. By doing so, we show our children that everyone is in charge of “cleaning up their own messes;” even adults. We demonstrate that making things better is within our power and making mistakes is not the end of the world.
  6. Teach them to look back: Young children aren’t really skilled in answering “why” questions so inquiring “why” they did something often results in the fruitless answer; “I don’t know.” Instead, ask these two “what” questions when they make a mistake: “What did you do?” (so they can claim ownership and responsibility) and “What happened when you did that?” (so they can understand cause and effect). When they can tell you what happened and how it affected them and others, they are taking the first step towards being accountable: admitting their contribution to the problem.
  7. Teach them to look forward: Children need to learn to take action when they make a mistake or contribute to a problem. The mistake isn’t the end, but rather, the beginning of the learning.  You get a bad grade on a test—>study longer, get extra help, study differently.  You break something—>apologize, ask for forgiveness, ask how you can make it better. I tell my children; “the most important part of making a mistake is cleaning up your mess once you make it…that’s what it means to have character.” Ask these two questions: “What are you going to do?” and “By when are you going to do it?” When they come up with a plan and have a date or deadline, they are more likely to stay accountable.
  8. Ensure that they have an accountability partner: Whether we are speaking about a child, a teen or an adult, people work best when they are accountable to others. You can be your children’s accountability partner or someone else they know such as an older sibling, grandparent, coach, or mentor can assume that position. Ask them; “How will your accountability partner know that you did what you said you were going to do?” They can tell, text, write, call or check something off a list when the task has been completed.
  9. Create the teachable moment if you have to do it: Many children strive to be perfect. They avoid mistakes at all costs. The older children get without making mistakes, the bigger an impact it can make when they finally do. Sometimes it’s necessary to put your children in a position of making a likely mistake so that they can experience it, rectify it and learn for themselves that mistakes are OK. We want them to make mistakes when stakes are low so they know what to do when they are older and the stakes are higher. Encourage them to try the sport they’ve never tried. Have them take a test that they are likely to fail. Once they don’t succeed, teach them to try again and point out that perfection is not the goal.
  10. Thank them for admitting their mistake and coming to you: It can be tough to admit wrongdoing—so when your children come to you with the truth, commend them for it. You are setting up an expectation on both sides that you want them to come to you when they need help or when things aren’t going right and that you will be there when they are truly in need. Sometimes you will simply need to be a coach—reflecting what they are saying, asking powerful questions and brainstorming possible solutions. Other times you will be a source of advice. Still other times, you may simply be a shoulder to cry on or a wall to bounce ideas off of—our role may not be “savior” but that doesn’t mean we don’t play a role in our children’s learning and growth. We most certainly do.

It’s vital that we don’t take over for our children—we must allow them to make their mistakes and encourage them and ensure that they clean up their messes once they make them. Even at age 2 and 3 I have taught my children how to apologize, how to make things better and how to cope when they’ve said or done something that they know is wrong. When I look at them I see two children who are learning self-reliance, integrity, accountability and courage. They are capable. They are risk-takers.  And that makes me proud.

Mistakes can be great gifts of learning so robbing our children of their ability to make them is, well, a mistake within itself. What are you teaching your children about making mistakes?

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