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Teaching Children to Learn from Mistakes As parents we must ask the following question, "How do I say and do things with my children so that they will develop a healthy attitude towards mistakes and setbacks, that they will learn that mistakes are expected and accepted?" Here are some thoughts about what parents can do to nurture a positive mindset in children about mistakes.

Serve as a Model
Children are astute observers of the ways in which their parents handle mistakes. As parents we have countless opportunities to model for our children a healthy attitude towards making mistakes and dealing with setbacks. It is for this reason that parents must think about how they think their children would answer the following question, "What do your parents do when they make mistakes?"

The following represent comments offered by children that show the negative role model their parents are setting:
  • "They yell and scream at each other. They blame each other."
  • "They say, 'What's the use' and give up."
  • "My dad said a word he always tells me not to say."
  • "My mom got angry at me for not wanting to join the soccer team because I thought I wasn't good enough. Yet, when she was asked to give a talk for the Rotary Club in our town she made up an excuse that she was busy. I think she was afraid, so why get angry with me for something that she does?"
  • "I hate when my dad does something wrong since he usually blames me. Like one time he went through a red light and got a ticket and then said to me and my brother that our arguing caused him not to pay attention."
 
There are some positive examples as well:
  • "When my dad tries to fix something in the house and it doesn't work, he loves to joke and say, 'I better pay attention to what I'm doing.' Usually, after that he does an okay job."
  • "My mom once burned the food when my parents were having guests over. I thought she was going to be really upset but she said to my dad, 'I guess we'll have to order out.' My dad laughed. Their friends weren't even upset about it and they were all joking about times they had burned food."
  • "My dad was having problems with a project at work. You could tell it was on his mind but when he was playing chess with me at night, he seemed not to think of work. A few days later he said it was solved. He really seemed confident."
While modeling certain behaviors as a parent doesn't guarantee our children will follow in our footsteps, we must remember that we are their primary teachers and children pay close attention to our reactions to various situations.

Use Mistakes as Teachable Moments
If we want our children to develop the belief that mistakes are experiences from which to learn, then we must reinforce this belief day in and day out by our response to their mistakes. Thus, question parents should consider how their children would answer is as follows, "When you make a mistake, when something doesn't go right, what do your parents say and do?" Reflect upon how your children would answer this question.

Most parents say that they want their children to learn from mistakes, often out of frustration and anger parents say and do things that work against this goal. The following represent comments offered by children when describing how their parents respond to their mistakes, beginning with a few negative examples:
  • "I spilled a glass of milk in a restaurant and my mother slapped my hand and said, 'You are so clumsy. You never pay attention.'"
  • "Whenever I try something and it doesn't work, my father says, 'I told you it wouldn't work.'"
  • "I caught two touchdown passes in my Pop Warner football game. I missed one pass. When I came off the field I couldn't believe my father's response. Maybe he thought he was helping me but it hurt. He said, 'How come you dropped that pass?' He didn't even mention the two touchdown passes I caught."
 
In contrast, what follows are a few positive examples:
  • "My parents encourage me to try new things and remind me that if it doesn't work out, it's not the end of the world."
  • "My mom is always there when I need help with something I have trouble doing. But she says she will help me but not do it for me. Sometimes I want her to do it for me but I know that she feels with her help I can learn to do it myself."
  • "Before my dad taught me to ride a two-wheel bike he took out a videotape of when he was learning to ride a two-wheeler. We laughed at all the times he fell down. Then he said, 'Somehow I still learned to ride. I'm sure you'll fall also.' His mom and dad were on the tape and gave him a big hug. I guess I felt less worried about learning to ride after seeing the tape."
What will make it easier for us to use mistakes as teachable moments? There are a number of possibilities. Below three very important ones are highlighted.

Be Empathic
The importance of empathy cannot be undertated. As parents if we wish to become more empathic and help our children deal more effectively with mistakes we should be guided by several questions:
  • "When I say or do things with my children that pertain to making mistakes, what do I hope to accomplish?"
  • "Am I saying or doing these things in a way that my children will be most likely to listen to and learn from me?" This question is very important. As we have seen, while many parents would answer the first question by saying they want their children to feel they can learn from mistakes, some respond in ways that result in their children feeling humiliated and intimidated and more fearful of making mistakes.
  • "Would I want anyone to respond to my mistakes the way I respond to my children's setbacks?" If the answer is no, then change the way you react to your children.
Have Realistic Expectations
Unrealistic expectations have on children can have a negative impact on children. We must be careful that our expectations do not place children in situations where the likely outcome is failure. We can advise children they will learn from mistakes. However, if they constantly make mistakes and do not experience success because we do not take into consideration their unique temperament and learning style, they will begin to flee from those tasks that they perceive as leading to failure. As one boy poignantly told me, "If you're supposed to learn from your mistakes then I should be a genius since I have made so many."

Prepare Your Children for Mistakes
Parents can prepare their children for the possibility that mistakes will occur, thereby lessening fears associated with possible setbacks. This can be accomplished with carefully selected comments at carefully selected times. Several examples were offered earlier in this article such as the father who showed his son a videotape of himself falling numerous times as he learned to ride a two-wheel bike or the child whose parents said it's not the end of the world if we try something and it doesn't work.

Preparing children for mistakes should not be confused with introducing a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure. What will insure that it is not experienced as a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure are our comments that if things do not work out there are other strategies we can use. Thus, our children hear the message that many possibilities exist for reaching our goals.

In summary, we can adopt a problem-solving approach with our children in which we convey the belief that all children will make mistakes whether on a test, in a sporting event, in a play, or in building a model. In a low-keyed manner we can communicate that when setbacks occur, we can figure out what will help to correct them. We can also offer realistic hope by articulating the belief that a task that is too difficult at this point may not present as great an obstacle in the future.

Children who are not paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes or failing are the youngsters who will grow up willing to take appropriate risks and willing to confront challenges. They will experience many opportunities to enjoy life rather than spending most of their time and energy running from possible failure. If we as adults are to help children develop this positive outlook, we must possess a healthy attitude about making mistakes.



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