How to Help Kids Learn From Mistakes

by | Jan 26, 2015 | Perseverance, Gives Up, Fears Failures, School Success and Learning

Tips to help kids recognize a key to success: “Learn from your failures.” 

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.                                      

~ Albert Einstein 

Do you want your child to succeed? (And what parent doesn’t.) Then know this: kids cannot learn to persevere, hang in there, or succeed unless they recognize how to deal with failure. Mistakes can be a chance to start over. In fact one of the most highly correlated traits of successful individuals is that they don’t let mistakes derail them.

Achievers succeed despite their mistakes by using their failures as learning opportunities.

Helping our children understand the importance of failing and learning from mistakes is critical for success. Just don’t assume please that your child grasps that lesson innately. We must purposefully set aside time to make sure our kids understand that value of mistakes as well as not be derailed when they make them. Here are strategies to help your child learn one of the most valuable lessons-how to bounce back from failure.

An important parenting lesson I learned from my son

I always loved waiting at the door for the school bus to bring my kids home. One day was particularly memorable: one of my sons walked in the house a little tenser than usual from first grade. I noticed he was hiding a crumbled paper behind his back. I greeted him with a big hug, trying to sneak a peek at the paper. “

What could possibly be causing him such concern?, I wondered. I helped him take off his backpack, and gently took the paper from his hands. When I uncrumbled the page, I was surprised to see the cause of his distress: he’d missed five words on his spelling test. Large red check marks left by the teacher pointed out his mistakes.

I looked at the panic on his face, and knew I needed to help him learn from this experience. After all, making mistakes is a part of life, and his life was just beginning.

I began searching for the right words and finally said, “Wasn’t it nice that your teacher took the time to put these red check marks on your paper?” I ignored his skeptical look (and my own, “What the heck was that…couldn’t you think of something better” thought) and kept on.

“You know it takes a lot of time checking work to let you know which words you missed. Your teacher must care a lot about you.”

The look in my son’s eyes clearly told me he couldn’t believe what I was telling him, but continued. “You do know why your teacher took the time to mark those words don’t you?”

I watched my child, obviously confused with where this was all going, slowly shake his head. “Well,” I explained, “She’s concerned about your learning. What she wants you to do is study the words she’s marked so you won’t make the same mistake the next time. Wasn’t that nice?”

And then I took that huge breath and waited. Seconds later I got one of those moment parents live for. My child was really thinking about everything I’d said. And then I saw the light go on–his look showed me he even understood what I was trying to tell him.

He nodded, gave me a quick hug, and ran to his room with his world back in control.

A few weeks later, as he was dashing off to the bus, is when I knew my words had stuck. He was carefully holding a package. When I asked what was in it, he excitedly explained, “It’s a present for my teacher. I bought her a red pencil!”

I stood there with my mouth open as he added, “Now she’ll always have an extra one to mark my mistakes. That way I’ll never make the same ones again!”

As he hurried to get on the bus, I stood there amazed my little lesson had worked. And then a staggering thought hit me, “What if I had never told him that mistakes can help you learn? How long would it have taken for him to figure it out himself?

How often we assume our kids understand so many critical skills. If we don’t take the time to teach them, their chances of success might be greatly reduced. Stop and ask yourself, “Have I taken the time to help my child mistakes can help him learn?” If not, set aside time to ensure your child recognizes this critical lesson of success. Here are four easy ways to weave in that crucial life lesson.

Four ways to help kids learn “mistakes aren’t fatal”

Making mistakes is how we learn. Making mistakes is especially how young children learn. Unfortunately, far too many kids (and grownups!) have never learned the value of making mistakes. And far too many don’t realize successful people don’t let setbacks derail them: they just find new routes to success. Succeeding depends on sticking with their efforts and not letting setbacks get them down. This section helps children recognize that mistakes don’t need to mean failure but instead can be learning opportunities in disguise.

1. Stress: “It’s OK to Make Mistakes”

The first step in helping kids realize errors don’t have to fatal is to simply say: “It’s okay to make a mistake.” Whatever grade I taught, on the first day of school I always did one thing that never failed to produce amazing reactions from my students. I simply announced: “In this room, it’s okay to make mistakes. Everybody makes them; after all that’s how you learn.”

Every year I’d watch a few students literally wipe sweat from their foreheads in such relief knowing I wasn’t expecting them to be perfect.

How sad they thought that’s what I would require! How can a child ever learn under such stress? We need to give our kids “permission to fail” and help them recognize mistakes can be positive learning experiences. When is the last time you told your kid, “It’s OK to make a mistake in this house”?

A teacher’s simple but powerful lesson about mistake-making

I watched a teacher give a small wrapped present to each student on the first day of school. The children were amazed to find small erasers inside their boxes. The teacher told them, “You’ll be needing these this year, because you’ll be making lots of mistakes. That’s how you learn. So whenever you make a mistake, just erase your mistake and try again. In this room mistakes are always a chance to start over.”

The teacher’s simple gift helped erase the idea to her students that mistakes mean failure. Find time to tell your child the success lesson: mistakes don’t mean failure, they’re a chance to start again. It’s a lesson he’ll use forever.

2. Admit Your Mistakes (I dare ya!)

Whether you’re aware of it or not, your child sees you as “all powerful and all knowing.” Obviously, we make mistakes, but too often we keep them to ourselves. Admit your errors to your children: it helps them recognize mistake making happens to everyone. (Beware: they’re also watching to see how you handle failure!)

3. Show Acceptance For Those Goofs

Whenever your child makes a mistake, show your support with both your words and your nonverbal reactions. The quickest way our kids will learn to erase the idea that mistakes are fatal is feeling our accepting response to their errors.

4. Tell How You Learned to Overcome the Obstacle

When you make a mistake, tell your child not only your error, but also what you learned from it. Suppose your dinner menu was a disaster, first admit the mistake to your family (do it quickly before they let you know your error), and then say what you learned from your mistake. Here’s how it would work:

“I sure blew this recipe. I learned I should always read the whole recipe before adding the eggs.” or “I was late for work because I couldn’t find my keys. I learned I need to put my keys in the same place every time so I can find them when I need them.” 

Then when your child makes a mistake simply ask, “What was your mistake?” and then, “What did you learn?”

Make mistakes be OK in your household. Stress that everyone…EVERYONE…makes mistakes: no on is perfect. Mistakes are how we all learn. And do emphasize again and again and again: “Don’t worry about your mistake. Think instead about what you will do differently the next time.”

Mistakes can be valuable lessons if we help kids learn from them. Once they realize mistakes don’t have to be “deadly.” they will be more likely to hang in there and not give up.

Dr. Michele Borba

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba