“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 children and adults alike who displayed raw talent in sports, academics, music, and other areas. In fact, I thought such 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 if you were going to succeed, practicing by making mistakes shouldn’t be part of the process. How wrong I was.
I would consistently try things and give up if I didn’t flourish almost instantly. It wasn’t until much later that I learned 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 – Change Your Child’s Perspective about Mistakes
This may seem like a simple question to answer: “What is a mistake?” But if you think about it, it’s more complex than it seems.
As a child, my answer was that a mistake was “doing something wrong.” That outlook made learning a challenge. 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 potentials by avoiding challenges.
On the contrary, those who believe that intelligence and abilities are assets to be nurtured through hard work possess “growth mindsets.” For those kids, making a mistake is an opportunity to learn. Dweck’s studies are clear: Kids with growth mindsets 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 can be developed can help do just that. Giving a child space to work out problems and make mistakes without judgment is another way to cultivate a growth mindset.
In her book Better by Mistake, journalist Alina Tugend points out that in the Japanese education system, for example, part of the classroom setting includes individuals working out problems in front of their peers, taking as long as they need, and doing so without shame. The purpose is to highlight the mistakes that, in turn, indicate the areas that need greater attention.
That notion reveals an even greater benefit that comes from redefining mistakes as learning opportunities, and the more children see things in this light, the greater the probability is for learning to occur within a group.
By not shying away from mistakes and feeling no embarrassment in sharing them, kids can help their peers improve and teach them to see mistakes as the opportunities they are.
2 – Examine Your Own Reactions to Your Child’s Mistakes
Most of us are conditioned early to hide mistakes, putting as much distance between us and our failure as the situation allows. While society and general human nature are largely to blame for such attitudes and behaviors, we parents have the power to help break the mold.
If children fear the consequences of knocking over that plant in the living room, putting their crayons down the heating vent, or cutting their little sister’s bangs with their crafting scissors, we might be fostering the fear of making mistakes.
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 are things that can be fixed and learned from. The kids need to know this, and we need to remember it.
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 one- and two-year-old at home myself, I know this takes practice.)
If you’re interested in learning more about this idea, there is an amazing mom who started a 365-day “no yelling” challenge for parents called The Orange Rhino.
3 – Change Your Child’s Inner Voice After She or He Makes a Mistake
“Why didn’t I do better on that test? I wish I were smarter.”
It’s common to adopt a voice of self-criticism after making a mistake. But what if we could 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 to be accountable 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.
Finally, 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 must necessarily hinge on a value-based self-analysis. Self-compassion, on the contrary, is blind to value.
We can teach our children to feel compassion for themselves simply because they are human. Practicing self-compassion allows children to observe, acknowledge, and learn from their mistakes without feeling shame, all without regard to external circumstances or skill levels.
A Kinder, More Successful Self
If we can teach our children to view mistakes as opportunities, to embrace their mistakes, and to practice self-compassion, we will have given 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 www.gozen.com