Children may not like mistakes, but they can learn so much from them. Learn how to teach kids to embrace mistakes and cope when they happen.
Teach Kids to Embrace Mistakes, We focus a lot on mistakes, don’t you think?
How often have we given kids grief for spilling a cup of milk or accidentally throwing a plate in the trash? Why do we correct mistakes more often for words they bungle than the plenty they can read perfectly?
This stigma against mistakes carries over into adulthood, too. Even the most motivated of us don’t like mistakes—they’re the hassles and setbacks that keep us from reaching our goals as quickly as we’d hoped. As inevitable as mistakes are, many of us wish we’d simply get it right the first time around.
But given the certainty of mistakes, we need to see the positive aspects they offer, both for ourselves and especially our kids.
For one thing, mistakes are humbling. No one is perfect, and kids need to realize they can never nor should try to be. No one gets to their goals immediately—we go through many mistakes and plenty of practice.
Mistakes also force us to focus on the process, not the final outcome. We’ve all heard the importance of the journey, instead of trying to get to the end by any means necessary. You wouldn’t want your child to push other kids aside just so she can get to the finish line first.
Mistakes can also act as an encouragement for kids not to give up. Part of raising a resilient child is developing the grit to keep getting up after every fall. And finally, mistakes help her find solutions and are part of the learning process. Instead of feeling defeated, she’ll see where she could improve or change.
How to teach kids to embrace mistakes
That said, the benefits of learning from mistakes doesn’t always make them any easier to experience. No child wants to see someone else make basket after basket while she can’t get the ball through the hoop even once. No doubt: the mistakes themselves aren’t exactly pleasant.
Still, we can teach kids to make the most of them, to see them in a positive light. We can change how we talk about and react when they make mistakes, and highlight their benefits.
1. Show that mistakes can teach us lessons
Mistakes can teach your child so much, from where she can improve to what she shouldn’t do again. Rather than treating mistakes as something to avoid, show her all that she can learn from them. After all, rarely do we reach our accomplishments on the first try, and no great figures got to the top in one day.
Instead, we learn from our blunders, especially when they force us to grow into better versions of ourselves and develop self-confidence. They show us the steps we shouldn’t do or how to do them differently and reveal what works and the tactics we should reconsider.
Mistakes aren’t stumbling blocks or failures. Think of them as teachers showing your child a new or different way to do things.
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2. Teach your child to find the reason behind the mistakes
A mistake is only a valuable asset when we can find its lessons. They can’t teach anything if we don’t dig deep and find out where we went wrong.
Staring at your child’s mistakes in her schoolwork won’t reveal the answer. Instead, she has to see where she went wrong so she can best correct it.
Or maybe she continues to forget her library book to school every week. Help her develop the habit of putting the book in her bag, writing a reminder on the dry erase board, or scribbling a note to herself and taping it to the wall.
Finding the reason behind mistakes—and learning to fix them—is the only way she can learn from them.
3. Watch your reaction to your child’s mistakes
“Oh, no,” 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 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.”
I immediately got his point. I needed to put my disappointment aside so it wouldn’t color my son’s view of mistakes and accidents. Because a potty mishap is as accident as they get.
You see, 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 tossed them in, assuming that’s how it’s done. As a result, a glass that had been sitting in the sink shattered.
Sure, you could reprimand her for the mistake so she’d know she did something wrong. But she might feel ashamed or confused since she thought she was following your instructions. She might take it as a personal attack.
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, or have her try again, this time being careful. You’re reassuring her that mistakes happen, but they can also serve a purpose. She can learn from mistakes and what not to do without the feeling of shame.
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4. Focus on the positive outcomes of mistakes
Try this: The next time your 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 any parent saying “That’s interesting!” when her child pees all over the floor or smashes a glass in the sink. But let’s look at another example:
Let’s say she was playing the piano and 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!” You can use the mistake as an opportunity to create a different sequence, or work on how to use that bit she did in a new piece. Creativity can grow from mistakes.
Yes, you’ll want to correct and practice her mistake so she can play the song, but show her that it’s not something to feel embarrassed about. Instead, her mistake could actually develop into something magnificent.
5. 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 parents.
Because no matter how much we embrace mistakes, they’re often unpleasant and cause a lot of anxiety. Imagine putting so much effort into a task but still making mistakes. Trying to solve a math problem that makes no sense, or figuring out a puzzle to no avail.
Mistakes are inevitable, no doubt, so we need to teach our kids how to cope with the ensuing frustration. For instance, your child can…
- Ask for help. When something feels difficult, let him know he can always ask for help. Asking doesn’t mean he failed or is incompetent, especially since some tasks can be beyond his developmental stage.
- Take a break. Tell him to take a break when he gets frustrated. A quick one-minute break can be all he needs to gather his thoughts, restart, and see the task in a different way. And he’ll be more patient and calm instead of agitated, which will help him try again.
- Give him a hug. Coping with frustration sometimes means getting non-verbal support. Hold him and let him crumble in your arms and release his emotions.
6. 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 bowl on the floor. Maybe admitting mistakes runs deeper, like apologizing to your child for yelling and losing your temper.
You can also describe mistakes you’ve made in the past. While you don’t want to glorify them, you can mention a few of the simpler ones so she doesn’t feel alone.
Admitting your mistakes shows that everyone makes them. They also don’t define who we are, and we can instead use them to our advantage by learning from them.
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7. Don’t rescue your child from mistakes
Let’s say your child has a favorite action figure. You’ve reminded her many times to keep it 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 toys!)
Except… she still didn’t take your advice. And one day, she can’t find the little figure no matter how hard she searches.
So, she asks you buy her another one. If you do, you’d end the frustration, the whining, and the arguing, but doing so won’t hold her accountable.
When you rescue her from all her mistakes, you deny her the opportunity to learn from them. She won’t take you seriously the next time about keeping her toys in the same place, especially when she knows you’ll buy her another one.
As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“Kids can only learn so much if we solve every problem they run into. And this is hard for parents to do. After all, it’s difficult to watch our kids struggle and experience failure and discomfort. If we had it our way, they’d never make mistakes or have to keep trying.
But with each rescue comes another ding to their desire to display their competence. Just as they were trying to prove they’re capable, mom or dad comes in and shows that they’re not. As you can imagine, this feels discouraging.”
Instead, teach her how to cope with the natural consequences of her mistakes, and make cleaning up part of her routine. You won’t be able to (nor should you) rescue her from life’s disappointments. Teaching her how to cope and learn from mistakes is a much more valuable tool.
8. Acknowledge your child for admitting or fixing mistakes
“Why is he crying?” I asked my kids, referring to my toddler who had run to me in tears.
“He got hurt,” my eldest responded.
“I hit him with the ball,” he admitted, his eyes lowered to the floor.
As tempting as it was to launch into a lecture about being more careful, I had to remember that he had just admitted a mistake—even when he didn’t have to. I didn’t jump into why we don’t throw balls at other people’s faces, and instead first acknowledged him for being honest and confessing.
Because admitting our mistakes is hard. I have a difficult time admitting where I had gone wrong or the part I played in an argument. When you notice your child sharing her mistake, acknowledge her—thank her, even—for doing so.
This doesn’t encourage her to misbehave. She 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 with what she can or can’t do, but she’ll learn that telling the truth was right, even if hitting was wrong.
We learned how important mistakes can be and how to encourage our kids to embrace them. All these strategies boil down to one thing: the way we view and talk about mistakes.
Show your child that mistakes are our best teachers, especially when you encourage her to find the reason behind them. Focus on the positive outcomes of mistakes, and be mindful of how you react when they happen.
Teach her how to cope with the ensuing frustration, and avoid rescuing her each time she makes a mistake. Admit the times you make them, and finally, acknowledge and even thank her for admitting or fixing the ones she makes.
So, you see, mistakes can actually be the greatest gift in an otherwise frustrating experience. And childhood is the best time to “practice” coping with them, when the stakes aren’t as high. From simple mistakes like spilling milk to large ones she’ll face in life, they can be some of the best lessons she’ll learn.