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Kids Make Mistakes. How We Respond to Them Makes All The Difference

Let's not forget this.

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The way we respond to our children’s mistakes and misbehavior is one of the most important lessons we can teach them.     

That old quote “There’s a reason pencils have erasers” has stayed with me from my childhood. My Dad would say it whenever we made a mistake. It means that mistakes are normal, expected. Mistakes can be cleaned up, and new words put down to overwrite what came before. 

The question is: Do you embody this wisdom when addressing your child’s mistakes?  Or does the story we tell ourselves get in the way and leave us criticizing and expecting better of them.  

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

Parenting can be overwhelming

Among our responsibilities to our children is creating an environment where mistakes are part of the process of living. We are also responsible for ensuring our children grow up to make choices leading them toward success and minimizing the challenges they’ll experience. 

However, there are times when these two important responsibilities come into conflict. 

Imagine a situation where your child has made a mistake and the instinct is to swiftly correct them. Your 8 year old has thrown a wooden block across the room. Your teen has failed to do her weekly chore again.  What lesson will we teach in this situation? 

“Knock it off, you could hurt someone throwing a block like that.”

“How many times do I have to remind you that it’s your responsibility to clean the litter box each week.”

How you respond and treat mistakes with your children influences the trajectory of our child’s behaviors and mindset

Mistakes are Scary

When we see our child ride their bike out into the street without a helmet or looking for cars, this is terrifying and generates a sharp reaction. What about when our teen skips their chores or the 8-year-old throws a block?  Does the same reaction pop up? By pausing and considering our reaction and looking below the frustration, it’s important to realize that we may be experiencing fear.

There is a commonly held belief that a child’s behavior is a reflection of our job as parents. Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior” says, “This idea that kids’ behavior is a reflection on the parent creates such a fear-based parenting culture.”

We fear that their unwillingness to clean the litter box again is a sign that we’re a bad parent and neglected to teach them the value of discipline. When our 8-year-old throws the block across the room we fear that we’ve not taught them to consider the consequences or their actions. Or taught them to control their anger.

We may be afraid that if we don’t swiftly correct these mistakes, our children will never learn to follow through on their responsibilities, or they are on a trajectory to grow up and be reckless. We believe we’re reacting to the mistake. We may, however, be reacting to the fear and the story we’re telling ourselves about what the mistake means. 

The stories are oftentimes carried over from our own childhoods, from experiences with other children, or even carried over from our parents and their parents.

We can choose to tell ourselves a different story.

Mistakes are necessary

Mistakes are a fact of life. We will see missteps in our own life that lead us down dark paths. We’ll see time spent spinning our wheels instead of making tough decisions. We’ll also see happy accidents, and instances where we grew stronger as a result of our mistakes.

Mistakes are why there are erasers on pencils. When our children make mistakes we can respond that mistakes are part of life. When correcting a child’s mistake we don’t have to leave them feeling bad about themselves. We can separate the behavior from the child. If mistakes are a natural part of life, then making a mistake does not make the child less worthy of our love, care, or respect.

Mistakes are not a reflection of either our parenting or the child’s fundamental goodness or badness. We can provide space for children to make mistakes and not shelter them from failures.

Guide children with empathy

Laura Markham, on her blog “AhaParenting“, writes, “There’s a common misconception that children develop resilience by failing. Actually, children develop resilience by dealing successfully with failure.”  

Empathy is key to helping us communicate this learning. Empathy gets us out of our own heads. With empathy we acknowledge the mistake for what it is and help our child engage in more appropriate behavior.

Dr. Markham defines empathy as “feeling from the other person’s point of view.” This means understanding what is emotionally present for them when they make a mistake. If in an over-excited moment, your child throws a block across the room narrowly missing the sleeping cat – we understand their excitement. Dr. Markham also points out that, “This doesn’t mean agreeing with our child, or letting him do whatever he wants just because we understand why he wants to.”

If we imagine the block throwing child again, rather than defaulting to one of the earlier responses, we can respond with something like: “Wow! You’re really excited aren’t you?”

After they nod their head excitedly we might say,

“Throwing a block like that, even when you’re excited, could hurt the cat. What else could you do when you’re super excited like that?”

In this small moment, we identify and validate the child’s feelings (empathy). We don’t tell ourselves a story about what this aggressive behavior may mean, instead we try to experience the situation from their perspective. Finally, we give the child an opportunity to find more appropriate behaviors on their own – so that next time they get super excited they know what they should do.

Simply correcting our children is not enough. We need to teach them how to turn the pencil over and begin erasing and to confidently write new letters down.

Anthony Beckman is a middle-aged, happily married, father of three working in Education Administration in Western, NY.  He enjoys coaching soccer with his twin teenage daughters and talking technology with his adult son.