By Dr. Cat Baker, PhD, BCBA-D
Teaching your child to learn from their mistakes takes some time and energy. But, the rewards are worth it. Admittedly, it is often faster to correct, reprimand, or punish your child when they make a mistake. However, taking the time to walk through the problem-solving process will teach them a lot more: they’ll learn what to do the next time a similar situation arises.
When you’re a parent, it can be helpful to see your child’s mistakes as opportunities for them to learn and grow. This mindset shift will help you avoid being shocked or frustrated when they make a mistake – we all do it. And, don’t waste this chance to help your child learn something important about themselves and their world.
Here are some tips for helping your child learn from their mistakes:
1. MODEL IT
Modeling the actions, behaviors, and attitudes that you’d like your child to learn is essential in just about any situation. If you want your child to learn from their mistakes, one of the best things you can do to help them is to learn from yours.
Speak openly with your child about the difficulties you face. When you make a mistake, discuss how you’re overcoming it. Talk about how you are correcting the mistake or solving the problem. This helps your child to learn about the problem-solving process.
Many parents find it difficult to admit they’ve made a mistake in front of their child. They worry that it shows weakness in some way, or that it undermines their authority. But, it’s an important part of modeling good learning-from-your-mistakes-behavior. If you want your child to be able to admit when they’ve done something wrong and take responsibility for it, then you have to model that for them so they can learn the skill.
When admitting you’ve made a mistake (maybe even a mistake with your child or with your parenting) you demonstrate what healthy vulnerability looks like. That teaches your child how to be vulnerable with you and to take responsibility when they do something wrong. And, it builds and strengthens your relationship, and the support system you’re able to offer your child, in so many ways.
2. STAY POSITIVE
When your child does something wrong, you might find that your first reaction is to punish them. But, while reprimanding or punishing your child might make it less likely that they’ll repeat the mistake in the future, it doesn’t teach them what to do instead.
You may need to point out or discuss what they did wrong and why it was unacceptable. But, don’t linger on the negative. Don’t go on and on about it. If you feel your child needs to understand their mistake a little better, briefly state what they did wrong. But, be sure to get to the stage where you’re working toward a solution pretty quickly. This will help your child to stay open and engaged with you, and it will make it a lot easier for you to help them through the problem-solving process.
3. HELP THEM FIND A SOLUTION
Teach your child to move on to finding a solution fairly quickly after they’ve made a mistake. It doesn’t serve them to linger on their frustration with themselves or their anger toward someone else. Instead, help them begin to work toward a helpful strategy for resolving the issue.
For example, let’s say your child forgets a book at school that they need to complete their homework assignment. Once they’ve recognized the mistake, help them to come up with some possible solutions. They could call or text a friend and have them take a picture of that page in the book, for example. Or, they could arrive at school a little early and complete the assignment then. They could also show up to class unprepared and accept the consequence of having to stay in for recess to finish it. Helping your child to identify options is a great way to offer support while also teaching the problem-solving process.
4. DON’T BE SHOCKED IF THEY DON’T LEARN THE FIRST TIME
It’s true that kids learn from their mistakes, just like everyone else. But, it’s important to know that people often have to make the same mistake multiple times before they learn the lesson.
It’s only natural to hope that your child will learn from the experience of forgetting their homework at school the first, second, or third time they do it. It’s easy enough to become frustrated when the same mistakes seem to be happening again and again. However, your child may need to repeat the mistake a dozen or so times, or even more, before they really internalize the lesson. Be patient with this process. Know that sometimes people have to make the same mistake over and over before the solution really clicks.
5. TAKE IT IN STRIDE
It helps to remember that kids have slow days, and happy days, and sad days, just like adults. Why do we expect something different from children than we do from grown-ups?
Staying calm when your child makes a mistake will help the problem-solving process to go smoothly. So, do your best to be easy about mistakes, theirs and your own. Expect your child to face challenges and make bad choices and mistakes on occasion. It’s a normal part of life, especially during childhood.
Also, give your child the benefit of the doubt that they have good intentions and they sincerely want to do the right thing. Ultimately, they want to please you and others. Know that they really do want to learn to do better, even when they aren’t exactly behaving that way on the surface. Go easy when they make a mistake and take it in stride emotionally. It will help your child to recover faster and make better decisions in the future.
6. TEACH THEM TO SEE MISTAKES AS OPPORTUNITIES
We learn a lot more from what we get wrong than we do when we get things right the first time. Mistakes really are opportunities to learn and grow. So, help your child to see that.
Teach them that no one expects them to be perfect. And, help them see that it’s important that they make mistakes so that they can learn from them. Teach them that it’s how we handle our missteps that really matters. Trying to avoid ever doing anything wrong simply isn’t realistic.
Celebrate successes that fall along these lines whenever you can. If your child apologizes to his friend for taking a toy without asking, congratulate them for that correction. You are proud of them for recognizing their mistake and trying to make it right!
Resiliency is a big deal in life. Being able to recover from errors and problems quickly and constructively can be a real advantage. One of the ways to teach kids to be resilient is not to focus on the mistake itself as much as on how to overcome it. When your child learns repeatedly how to overcome the mistakes they’ve made, it builds resilience. They’ll start to view mistakes as a normal part of life and as opportunities to learn.
7. BE PATIENT
Be patient with your child, and yourself too, as you go through this process.
Sometimes, when your child does something wrong, you’ll want to jump in and tell them what they have to do to make things right or issue a punishment. (“Give that toy back to your brother right now and apologize!”) However, try to remember that it’s better to take the time to do some problem-solving work together. Help them to navigate the problem effectively instead. Invest the energy into teaching skills during these moments. Remember, if you fix the problem for them (which will be especially tempting on days when you’re extra busy) they won’t learn as much from the experience. Embrace this chance to really teach your child something – the moments when they make mistakes are particularly potent and ripe with opportunities to learn and grow.
This approach does take time. It takes being intentional, and it isn’t always easy. Still, it’s good to be as consistent as possible. Just remember that it’s okay if you make a mistake.
Ready for more parenting tips? We recommend reading 7 Strategies for Teaching Resilience. You also might be interested in Impulsivity in Children with ADHD. Need more support? Consider signing up for our upcoming Bootcamps!