Why only some children learn from their mistakes

An excited three-year-old grabs a bottle of milk from the table and joyfully shakes it until its contents spill all over the kitchen floor. The child’s mother rushes towards the pool of white liquid spreading across the tiles, looks up at her child and grins. “What happens now?” she asks enthusiastically. They explore the consequences together. No scolding or words of disapproval are muttered. Sound unlikely? In most North American households this scenario would play out very differently. That’s because too often parents are quick to scorn their children for making mistakes. In reality, however, there are great advantages to teaching your children to learn from their mistakes.

A new study from Michigan State University, shows people who think they can learn from their mistakes have a different brain reaction to errors than those who don’t.

The study demonstrates that people who think they can learn from their mistakes bounce back faster after making one. Furthermore, their brains are more alert to the fact they’ve made a mistake, and subsequently are quicker to correct it. This way of thinking is a pattern that can be developed in childhood.

Children who expect to make mistakes are much more willing to try new things and take on difficult tasks. As a result, they’re open to learning more both at school and in other environments.

Parents who feel aversion to making mistakes themselves often pass this burden on to their children. However, once aware, there is a great opportunity to break the cycle. Parents can assure their children’s mistake are normal, in fact even grown-ups make them. What matters is what we do to correct them.

How To Turn Mistakes Into Learning Opportunities

The first step is to acknowledge when your child has made a mistake and explore the outcome. Ask what they learned from the experience, and how they think they can improve the next time around. Reiterate as often as you can that making mistakes means learning something new.

Consistency is key. When you are the one making a mistake, make sure you react the same way. For example, if you break a glass you can say, “I made the mistake of leaving it too close to the edge of the table. Next time, I’ll be careful to leave it in the center instead, so it won’t fall when I move my arms.”

If your it is your child who breaks a glass, respond calmly. Telling your child something along the lines of “I told you so” does not help. Instead, ask questions like, “how did your glass fall?” or “what can you do next time, so you don’t make that same mistake?” This allows your child to determine where they went wrong and think of a solution for next time.

The second step is to instill the habit of taking responsibility for one’s mistakes. Many parents rush to fix their children’s mistakes. In doing so they rob their children of the opportunity to shoulder responsibility. Going back to the broken glass scenario. Once your child has determined why the glass broke and how they can prevent it from falling next time, ask how they plan to fix the problem, and let them clean the mess without assistance. Figuring out how to solve the problem provides an opportunity for your child to learn responsibility and gain confidence in knowing mistakes can be made right, or at least better. Children can gain much pride from knowing they can be trusted to find an adequate solution to a problem they themselves create.

When children learn from their mistakes and are encouraged to find creative solutions, they develop problem-solving skills that last long into the future.


Originally published in:

L.A. Parent (December 29 2011)

Urban Baby and Toddler Fall 2013

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