Out of My Mindfulness

Examining the power of mistakes


I’m not sure about you, but I’m thrilled to be waving goodbye to my children as the bus pulls away on the first day of school. I have loved this busy, hot, summer break, but my kids get so many of their needs met at school: learning, fun, social connection and adventure. I’m ready for my little ladies to return to school, and they are excited to be back with friends and teachers.

I can tell they are also a bit nervous, and we have been having some great talks to help them embrace a learning, or “growth" mindset, during this time of transition. The term growth mindset (vs. a fixed mindset) was coined by psychologist Carol Dweck 30 years ago and helps kids and adults see that we can grow our brains at any age if we see the challenges of learning as fun and necessary, instead of working to avoid them. Here are my favorite suggestions for kids and adults getting ready to make the most of their next big adventure.

Embrace the beginner’s mindset

One of the skills growth mindset fosters is to “be a beginner.” It’s key to acknowledge that at any age our brains and bodies are able to learn new skills and attain new abilities. When we are beginners, we will undoubtedly look foolish, fumble, and maybe even fall painfully before beginning to feel confident doing a new task. Whether it’s learning a new language, trying a new sport, or playing an instrument, you are expected to look and sound, well, like a beginner. For some folks this feels truly awful and embarrassing, but it’s actually a normal and necessary part of learning new skills. Helping your child understand this fact from a young age is a gift.

It might look like this:

  • Ask your child to imagine their favorite athlete or performer when they were starting out. Think about what this person may have looked like learning the activity that they are now famous for. You may even be able to find a book or video about their early life and struggles to achieve success.

  • Use “yet” by adding it to the end of disappointed sentences: “I just cannot catch the ball, yet.” At the pool this summer my 5 year old often said, “I’m not going to put my face under the water.” I always added a “yet,” until she finally caught on and started doing it too.

Just keep swimming

The majority of kids are easily discouraged by mistakes and stop doing an activity or working toward a skill if it is challenging. However, if we talk to them about this phenomenon we can change their beliefs and responses to the hard stuff. When you see a child struggling with a challenging task or emotion, express that it’s normal to work hard toward a goal. Your child’s brain is wired to get a big reward when they accomplish a new task (not when it’s done for them). Encouragement to try again is key. This may require mustering more patience and understanding than you thought you were capable of as you sit back and watch your child struggle.

It might look like this:

  • Mirror an experience so they can see from a big-picture perspective, “I see you working so hard to get your own helmet on. That’s a new skill; it takes practice to learn.”

  • Offer support without doing it for them, “How about I show you how my helmet works, and then you can try yours again?”


Speed bumps offer awareness

I’ll be honest, I am still working on embracing failure as my best teacher. Early on, I got the inaccurate message that mistakes and failures somehow reflected poorly on my self-worth. Logically, as an adult, I know that this is not true, but it’s still really hard to engage in something I know I’m going to struggle with or look silly doing. This point of view is incredibly common for children, which is why it’s so important to teach them that hard work and mistakes are a sign of intelligence. Learning from your failures over and over again is what helps you get to where you want to go in life.

According to the late Martin Covington, a psychology professor at University of California Berkeley, the majority of children are actively working to avoid failure by making excuses or creating defense mechanisms. A minority are what Covington called “success-oriented” students, who “love learning for the sake of learning and see failure as a way to improve their ability rather than a slight on their value as a human being.” The sooner you teach your kids to celebrate their failures, the better.

It might look like this:

  • Praise effort and hard work to help instill a love of learning for the sake of learning. Instead of a gold star whenever they achieve the goal, notice the work leading up to it, “I see you trying again and again, you are working so hard. It’s awesome.”

  • Normalize mistakes and failures as an important part of the human experience: “We all make mistakes. I know it can be frustrating, but that’s the way our brains learn.” Mistakes are like speed bumps; they are there to help us be aware. “What happens when we hit a speed bump going too fast? We quickly learn to change course, slow down or try again from a different angle.”

Petterson lives in Moscow with her husband and their two children. She left public education to become a yoga instructor, sleep specialist and mindful parenting educator. She can be contacted via her website at kristinepetterson.com.

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