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The Anti-Perfectionist Parent: Why we should embrace kids’ mistakes

When they’re little, our children are taught that they must make mistakes in order to learn. But as they get older, the message changes – mistakes should be avoided at all costs. And that’s a pity. Because by teaching our children, overtly or covertly, that mistakes are bad and even shameful, they learn to be scared to take risks, try new ideas, and move out of their comfort zone.

Research has shown that children, when praised for being smart, try to continue looking smart by playing it safe. Children praised for their effort and how hard they try, on the other hand, are more willing to challenge themselves, because they’re far less worried about appearing “dumb” if they aren’t perfect.

The other downside of teaching our children that they shouldn’t make mistakes is that when they do screw up or fail, as they inevitably will, they fall apart. They don’t know how to deal with being wrong because they’ve spent so much of their life avoiding it.

Now most of us don’t think we’re telling our children to fear goofing up. We may say to them that “everyone makes mistakes.” Or “we know you can’t be perfect.” But the message behind those platitudes is often different. It’s about getting A’s and awards and good test scores and into the right college. It’s not about the process but the results. Of course these things are important, but the problem comes when they’re all that matter.

So how do we talk about mistakes with our children? Below are some suggestions:

  • Don’t Be Result Centered. Try not to always ask your child about results, such as “Did you get an A?” “Did you win the game? How many baskets did you make?” Rather, ask how the test or game went. If it went well or poorly, take your cues from your child – does she seem happy or unhappy with the results? Why? Don’t jump in with assumptions.

  • Emphasize Effort as Much as Possible. Let’s say your son received a lower grade on a class project than he expected. First sympathize a little, but once he has calmed down, ask if he thinks he put as much work into the project as he could have. Where does he think he could have done better? If you agree that he did work hard, then praise him for that and try to put aside the grade. If not, gently point out areas you think he might have pushed himself a little more.

  • Instill a Flexible Mindset. Talk to your children about the idea that the brain and our ability to learn new things are always developing and growing. Too many children have fixed mindsets – that is they believe either they’re good at something – such as math, writing, or baseball – or they’re not. Research has shown that when children are taught that intelligence and abilities are malleable and can develop with hard work, they are more willing to put out effort and to make mistakes. They don’t see errors as a sign of stupidity, but as part of the learning process. This doesn’t mean we can all be concert pianists or mathematical geniuses, but we all have a much greater ability to develop our potential than we think we do.

  • Show Them Even You’re Not Perfect. Talk to your children about times you made a mistake or failed at something that was important to you and how it made you feel. Maybe you blew a tryout for a school play or dropped a crucial fly ball or forgot to show up for an important interview. They can see that you made a mistake and lived to tell the tale.

  • Set a Healthy Example. How do you and your partner/spouse handle it when one of you makes a mistake? Do you become defensive? Attack? Beat yourself up? If so, the message about mistakes that you’ll be passing on to your children is that blunders are something disgraceful. Sure we all get frustrated at the spilled milk and lost keys and forgotten cleats, but we need to learn to neither exaggerate nor gloss over those goof-ups. They’re part of life.

  • Apologize. Teach your children what a good apology is and model it yourself. A proper apology involves three steps: acknowledging the mistake or injury, expressing regret for it and responsibility for it – and if possible a way to fix the injury. Saying “I’m sorry if you were upset,” is not an apology – it’s implying that the person you’re apologizing to is just too oversensitive. Reiterating how bad you feel over and over is not an apology – it’s getting something off your chest. An apology should not be a monologue, but a dialogue where you really listen to the person you’re apologizing to.

  • Don’t make Perfection a Goal. If you have a child that seems terrified of falling short – of not being perfect – it’s really necessary to talk about how no one is flawless, and perfection is not a goal one should aspire to. It is important to work hard and have high goals, but the desire to be faultless can backfire: those who are overly concerned with perfectionism often can’t prioritize because they feel they have to be good at everything. They can’t listen to negative feedback, because it terrifies them, so they can’t learn. They always feel like they’re falling short. “Nobody’s perfect” shouldn’t just be an empty slogan but a true belief.

  • Let your Children be Uncomfortable at Times. This is very hard for many parents – they hate seeing their children unhappy or frustrated, so they rush in to protect and fix things. Don’t do it. Our children are stronger than we think, and they must learn that sometimes if they forget a school lunch, they’ll have to be a little hungry. Or if they don’t make the soccer team, maybe they need to practice that much harder. Learning to push oneself through a difficult patch and not give up at the first obstacle is the key to well-being and success. Don’t deprive your children of it.

None of this is easy; there are no quick-fixes or magic words. But we can change the way we and our children view mistakes. We can deemphasize results and emphasize effort. We can acknowledge that human beings screw up on a regular basis and be more forgiving of ourselves and others. We can acknowledge that perfection is a myth. The great thing about trying to change the way we view mistakes is that it’s okay to make mistakes! We just have to keep trying.

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