Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Nobody's Perfect:

Teaching Kids about Mistakes

My husband is a perfectionist. He admits it, usually with an old-dog-new-tricks shrug. In his line of work, perfectionism serves him well. In other parts of his life, though, it can be tough to be so exacting. Life isn't an exact science.

Our oldest son has inherited this personality trait. He is driven and persistent. He is also fierce and unrelenting at times when he wants things to be done a certain way. My mother has told me that he is "Type A".

All I know is that he puts a tremendous amount of pressure on himself and has an amazing inner drive. But his constant pushing for perfection can sometimes be a problem.

I remember getting a phone call from his teacher back when he was in first grade. The class had been playing a math game, and my son had gotten a problem wrong and was out of the game. He fumed. Later on, he got a paper back that had been corrected. He had left the punctuation off of a sentence. He simmered. Finally, when he raised his hand to answer a question, he barked the answer at the teacher. She called him on it, and he boiled over. He didn't like mistakes. Their existence rocked his foundations.

I'm glad she called me about it. What happened at school gave our family a way to talk about making mistakes and use them as a chance to learn. That small episode turned out to be an opportunity for growth.

My husband and I have tried a few strategies that have really worked.

Talk and teach openly about making mistakes. Although we have always encouraged our children with positive reinforcement, especially when they had difficulty, we realized that we never really used the word mistake with our children. We treated small struggles individually and rarely generalized to teach the concept: we are human beings and all human beings make mistakes.

Admit our own mistakes. My parents were the unquestioned authority in my family growing up. But to teach our children about mistake-making, my husband and I have had to come down from our parental pedestal at times. We decided to try and admit our mistakes as they happen -- from humbly admitting that we forgot an appointment to bravely apologizing to one of the children when we have wronged them. [Trust me, the apology part is harder than it sounds. A true apology includes an honest effort to make amends. We decided that modeling was the best way to teach the art of the apology. Especially tough on proud Mama, I tell you.]

Forgiveness and Love go Hand-in-Hand. As a family, we believe that mistakes don't erase the love we feel for each other. So, when we have an argument, we make a point of airing our feelings and making friends again before we move on. Sometimes that takes time, but not as much as you might imagine. When my son is having a hard time forgiving himself, I reinforce that no part of my love hinges on him being perfect. I love him even with his flaws, not in spite of them. That doesn't mean I have no expectations for his behavior or that a mistake can no longer be called out. But it does mean that my son will always be my son. Sometimes he just needs to hear that.

Emphasize our humanity. There are no perfect people. When my son first started resisting the idea that any mistakes were ever acceptable, we asked him to come up with the name of even one person who never made a mistake. He said Jesus. Okay, he had us there. But in trying to give us the "right" answer, he actually opened up a great way for us to approach the concept of our common humanity. We talked about our faith in a different way than we had before. It was a great learning opportunity -- for him and for us as parents. As time has gone on, we have talked about other special people -- scientists, sports figures, national heroes. All one needs to do is open a book to find out that Einstein failed out of school or that Babe Ruth had a problem with his temper, or that Abraham Lincoln got in trouble for laziness because he read instead of doing his chores. Seeing "great" people as human has helped.

Mistakes are Opportunities to Learn. If we think about failure as an opportunity to build a skill or solve a problem creatively, mistakes become easier to handle. Sometimes in life, we make "silly" mistakes -- like when I hurry and put my keys in the fridge and the cream cheese in my purse, or when my son focuses on getting a math paper done as fast as possible and doesn't pay attention to the plus and minus signs. We look for the lesson: slow down, stop and think, re-check your work. If bigger mistakes are made, like hitting your brother because you want a toy, we look for the lesson, too. People are more important than things. We re-focus and try again.

Teaching about mistakes is something I'm sure we will continue to work with as the children get older and as the consequences of their behavior become greater and greater. I like that we are working on it together. It may be true that I am learning as much as he is.

We have noticed that the lesson is sinking in. My son told his sister the other day, "It's okay. We all make mistakes. You just have to try to learn from it." I smiled when I heard it.

Maybe I should call his First grade teacher and say thanks.

- Midwest Mom


  1. Julia, love your blog know. You seem very nice.
    Sorry, I am Brazilian and I am learning English.

    Visit my blog: http://vivervivo.blogspot.com

    Nadir Paes

    Julia, adorei conhecer seu blog. Você me parece muito simpática.
    Desculpe-me eu sou brasileira e estou aprendendo inglês.

    Visite meu blog: http://vivervivo.blogspot.com

    Nadir Paes

  2. Excellent article! I'm glad I caught your tweet today. I'm adding you to my blogrolls at http://www.examiner.com/x-4000-NY-Family--Parenting-Examiner and http://creativeparentingtips.blogspot.com/

  3. What a great post! Good advice for parenting, but also for life in general!

  4. As usual my dear, a sterling job! I wish you were MY mom!
    ps. I learned more from my kids than I ever would have known without them!

  5. Awesome post! You're so right :)

  6. You should email his first grade teacher this blog, I bet it would make her day.

    Hmm I've seen that old dog new tricks shrug around here.. I'll have to keep this advice handy. ..

  7. What a great post. As a perfectionist myself, I totally *get* your son. Of course as a 1st grade teacher on hiatus, I am totally admiring your way of teaching him that mistakes are okay.

    In addition to admitting my authentic mistakes, one thing I would often do was to intentionally make mistakes when doing tasks that I wouldn't normally. For example, I would misread words or misspell things so that my 1st graders would see how easy it is to make mistakes. They loved catching me and being the "teacher".

    These are great tips. Thanks for the reminders since I'm beginning to fall out of practice.


  8. That's so sweet--and healthy! I grew up in a house that didn't tolerate screwing up--EVER. Perfection is a hard bar to reach. I'll never forget my 10th grade math teacher to admitted to a mistake to our class and then apologized. I was floored. That moment changed my entire attitude about owning and forgiving.

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  10. Anyone can have a mistake. We do not live in a perfect world.

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