They can’t learn anything if they’re not allowed to try and try again.
“Wow, she’s a natural at soccer.”
“He’s like a math prodigy!”
“Did you see how well she plays the violin? And she’s only five.”
Growing up, I was in awe of kids and adults who displayed raw talent in sports, academics, music, and other areas. In fact, I thought such innate, effortless talent was the only path to success.
Don’t get me wrong — My mom attempted to influence me with the truism: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Yet, to me, it seemed that the pathway to success shouldn’t include practicing by making mistakes. How wrong I was!
I consistently tried new things and then gave up if I didn’t flourish almost instantly. I didn’t learn until much later that making mistakes is not only a healthy part of learning, it can provide the greatest opportunities for success.
Here are three powerful and actionable strategies for improving your child’s view of mistakes and success:
1. Reframe your child’s perspective about mistakes
For most kids, making a mistake means “doing something wrong.” That outlook makes facing a challenge difficult.
World-renowned researcher of motivation Carol Dweck reveals that those who adopt that type of “fixed mindset” — a belief that intelligence, character, and creative ability are innate and immutable — cap their own potential by avoiding challenge.
On the contrary, those who believe that intelligence and abilities are assets we nurture and cultivate through hard work possess “growth mindsets.” For those kids, making a mistake is an opportunity to learn. Dweck’s studies are clear: Kids with a growth mindset take on more challenges, bounce back more quickly from setbacks, and thrive academically in comparison to those with fixed mindsets.
Fortunately, we can help our kids nurture growth mindsets. For example, the simple awareness that the brain is a muscle that we can develop helps us do just that. Giving a child space to work out problems and make mistakes without fear of judgment, shame or punishment is another way to cultivate his or her growth mindset.
2. Change YOUR reactions to your child’s mistakes
Most of us learned early in life to hide our mistakes, putting as much distance between us and our failure as possible. While society (and general human nature) are largely to blame for reinforcing such attitudes and behaviors, as parents, we now have the power to break that toxic way of thinking.
If children fear the consequences of accidently knocking over that plant in the living room, getting a low grade, or cutting their little sister’s bangs with their crafting scissors, we’re fostering in them a fear of making mistakes at all (including the critical ones they’ll need to make to grow into healthy, well-functioning adults).
While I am not proposing a life with no consequences (or toddler-staffed barbershops), I AM proposing that we examine our own reactions as parents and educators to our children’s mistakes. The vast majority of mistakes young children make are relatively harmless. They have fixable outcomes that children can learn from.
Making mistakes is part of “trying” … part of “practicing” … two things we encourage our children to do all the time. Only through our calm reactions to mistakes can we establish this mentality in our children, and only through consistent application can we make it stick. (Having a two toddlers at home myself, I know this takes practice.)
3. Help your child stop negative self-talk
“Why didn’t I do better on that test? I’m so dumb! I wish I was smarter.”
It’s common to adopt a voice of self-criticism after making a mistake. But it’s time to teach our children to treat themselves as they treat their own best friends. Research shows self-compassion trumps self-criticism on the path toward reaching our goals.
Wait — isn’t this a form of self-indulgence? Shouldn’t we teach our kids accountability for their mistakes?
A pioneer in self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff says there are three common misconceptions about the nature of self-compassion:
- First, self-compassion is not self-pity. Self-pity tends toward the self-absorbed end of the spectrum. It ignores the fact that many others have made the same mistake. It focuses on what happened rather than on what should happen next, and it emphasizes taking inspiration from shared experiences.
- Second, self-compassion is not self-indulgence. Teaching your children self-compassion does not mean coddling them or teaching them to coddle themselves. Point out to your children that being truly compassionate with themselves necessarily involves setting themselves up for futures of growth and success. Self-indulgence is nearly always couched in short-term pleasure and, consequently, is usually less than compassionate.
- Third, self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem. In a culture where we value standing out and being special, where average people need to believe they are above average, self-esteem hinges on determining one’s “value” through self-analysis. Self-compassion, on the contrary, is blind to value. You’re already “enough” as you are.
We must teach our children to feel compassion for themselves simply because they’re human. Practicing self-compassion allows our kids to observe, acknowledge, and learn from their mistakes without feeling shame, all without regard to external circumstances or skill levels.
Making mistakes is essential to success.
If we can teach our children to view mistakes as opportunities, to embrace their mistakes, and to practice self-compassion, we give them powerful and exponentially rewarding gifts. They will inevitably find more success and genuinely make the world a better, kinder place.
Join Renee on a mission to teach children invaluable skills including resilience, self-compassion, how to take on anxiety, and much more at Gozen.com