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September 05, 2023

Classes are resuming this time of year, and so are... mistakes. 


It's an inevitable part of the learning process — errors on homework, on tests, on the answers kids give when called on in class. But don't be mistaken when it comes to mistakes: they're a great opportunity to promote optimism and confidence in your children. Here's one way to approach it: 

Parent: "How did you do on that quiz you were studying for the other day?" 

Child: "I got a C+." 

Parent: "I guess you made some mistakes, huh?" 

Child: "Yeah." 

Parent: (sounding upbeat) "Nothing wrong with mistakes so long as you figure out where you went wrong. Mistakes are how we get smarter; that's how we learn." 

Child: (Listening quietly.) 

Parent: "Did you know that the most successful people in the world made lots of mistakes before they got it right? That's how they learned to get good at what they do. Have you heard of Babe Ruth, the famous baseball player? For lots of years, he held the record for hitting the most home runs. He also held the record for the most strikeouts. Think about it.” 

We want our kids to feel encouraged and optimistic — about learning, about facing challenges, about their capacity to do well. Discouraged children are quick to throw in the towel, to give up and see themselves as a failure. One way we discourage our kids is by responding to their mistakes with upset and anger and negativity, by scolding them for not trying harder or lecturing them on the importance of taking school seriously. In any conversation about our kids’ mistakes, we’re smart to keep our tone neutral and our words encouraging while taking care not to transmit whatever fears we may have about their ability to succeed. (It’s for us to investigate our fears — where they’re coming from, whether the size of our fear is greater than it needs to be — so that we don’t burden our kids with the weight of our own unresolved and unexamined issues.) 

"Embrace failure as the greatest of all learning experiences," write the authors of I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy (Late August Press, 2008). "‘Failing is our best teacher,' we must tell our children, and we must demonstrate patience and acceptance when... they make mistakes and fall flat on their faces." 

With the start of the new school year, parents everywhere are likely to have plenty of practice.