Mistakes

Adults understand that making mistakes is part of life.  What’s important is how we learn from them. 

Yet, many children are growing up in a society that pressures them to be perfect – to get the highest SAT scores, to land prized scholarships, to get into the best universities.  Some parents correct or complete children’s homework to get them a better grade. So how does all this focus on testing and perfection affect kids’ learning?  And how can we help them learn from mistakes?

I recently came across an article in Scientific American, Getting it Wrong: Surprising Tips on How to Learn that supports a number of learning and developmental theories.  Historically, many educators have created conditions for learning that do not encourage errors.  And parents have followed suit.  For example, if we drill children over and over again with the same math problem, they will eventually remember the answer. And if they are lucky, they will remember the answer on a standardized test.

This approach to learning assumes that if students are allowed to make mistakes, they will not learn the correct information.  However, recent research shows this to be an incorrect assumption. In fact, studies have found that learning is enhanced when children make mistakes!

Whether it involves homework, developing friendships, or playing soccer, learning is enriched through error.  Learning from mistakes is part of how kids are challenged to learn to do things differently. It motivates them to try new approaches.

Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford, studies the importance of challenging children, even if they get things wrong.  Her research shows that praising children for their intelligence can actually make them less likely to persist in the face of challenge.  She and her colleagues followed hundreds of 5th grade children in New York City schools.  One group was praised for their intelligence while the other group was praised for their effort.

When the 5th graders were challenged with an extremely difficult test designed for 8th graders, a surprising result occurred.  The students who had been praised for their effort worked very hard, even though they made a lot of mistakes.  The kids praised for being smart became discouraged and saw their mistakes as a sign of failure.  Intelligence testing for the kids praised for their effort increased by 30% while the kids praised for their intelligence dropped by 20%. I’ve written before about the value of specific rather than general praise in relation to developing character strengths.  It’s the same concept — and an important one.

Expressing Unconditional Love

Heart in SandI will never forget a ParentNet Meeting I facilitated when my daughter was in 8th grade.  One father in the group, a business executive with Microsoft, asked the other parents, “How do I let my daughter know that I still love her even if she makes mistakes?” There was a brief silence. Then someone said, “Have you ever told her?”  Another silence. Then tears came to this father’s eyes.  “No,” he said, “I haven’t. But I will now.”

That moment of simple realization was profound for all of us. Do our kids really feel that our love is dependent upon being a perfect student?  I’m sure we all went home and reinforced this message of love to our kids – just in case it wasn’t already loud and clear!

Children make many kinds of mistakes – some are simple and some are more complex.  For example, some mistakes, like forgetting a homework assignment or not studying for an important test, have expected consequences. Others, like lying, cheating, or actions that negatively affect friendships, have more complicated causes and are more complex to remedy. But all mistakes contain seeds of learning.

Learning from Mistakes: Ten Parenting Guidelines that Foster Positive Youth Development

  • Acknowledge that you don’t expect them to be perfect.
  • Let them know your love is unconditional, regardless of their mistakes or lapses in judgment.
  • Don’t rescue children from their mistakes. Instead, focus on the solution.
  • Provide examples of your own mistakes, the consequences, and how you learned from them.
  • Encourage them to take responsibility for their mistakes and not blame others.
  • Avoid pointing out their past mistakes. Instead, focus on the one at hand.
  • Praise them for their ability to admit their mistakes.
  • Praise them for their efforts and courage to overcome setbacks.
  • Mentor them on how to apologize when their mistakes have hurt others.
  • Help them look at the good side of getting things wrong!

Photo Credits: pcgn7; GiselaGiardino

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