Think about the last time that you made a mistake. It may have been at the office, at home, or with a friend. How did it feel? What were the messages that you told yourself?
Many people can’t tolerate making a mistake, there are both physiological and psychological reasons for this. Our body’s response to failure is often experienced as actual physical pain. The same areas of the brain that are activated when we experience emotional injury are activated when we experience physical injury. So not only do we physically “feel” mistakes, but we experience shame as a result of an error, and we feel like wrong with us if we can’t get something right.
Shame is one of the most potent and painful emotions we can experience, and people will do whatever they can to avoid feeling this way. One of the most empowering gifts we can give our children is to actively talk about how important making a mistake is. When we talk about the power of making mistakes, it stops mistakes from becoming a shameful experience and instead shines the light on the potential embedded in a mistake.
We have created a world in which children receive minimal exposure to the stress of making mistakes. A decade ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe the emotional struggles that students faced when met with simple challenges. Many of our youth enter college or university without having experienced failure, and when they get out on their own and they now are competing for an A with 500 students instead of 25 peers, it’s completely crippling. They have no relationship with pain to understand it’s not actually a threat; it’s their greatest teacher.
As a parent, the first step is to take a long reflective look at our own relationship with our children’s pain of failure. For many parents, there is a desperate need to protect children from failure because of their own discomfort with pain. At some point they were made to feel that mistakes weren’t acceptable and if they made them, potentially they faced rejection from someone they loved. Our children’s pain reminds of us our own, a path no one showed us how to walk on our own. This is why parents jump in and complete their child’s assignments, request specialized treatment at school, or argue with coaches to have their child placed on a specific team. Seeing our child’s pain creates unbearable pain within us.
But pain is where children and adults alike experience growth and is the catalyst for molding integrity and character. When children struggle, they grow and come to deeply understand that they are strong, capable human beings. When we remove barriers for our child and jump in to stop them from feeling pain, we inadvertently teach them that we do not think they are capable. The message is that they cannot stand by them-self, that they are not strong, and, perhaps most concerning, that we don’t believe in them.
So, when our child comes up against life’s inevitable storms, we want to be present and to lean into the pain with them. Our job is to say to our child: “I see your pain from this mistake. It is real and overwhelming, but I also see your courage, and it’s bigger.”
We also need to be aware of how we talk about our own mistakes and how much space we give for learning and developing, which involves slowing everything down. Often, we don’t communicate enough with our children. In our home, I intentionally focus on modelling the importance of making mistakes to our kids by saying, “This is hard. I will need to do it many more times before I get it right.”
Children will often see their parent(s) end point—the job, the degree, and the house—without knowing the backstory. Tell your child about the journey that got you to where you are: the assignments that were forgotten, the job interview you were not prepared for, and the budget that failed. These conversations build a growth mindset. We learn more from the journey than we do the final destination.
Dinner time is a great time to share conversations around, “What’s your oops?” As the parent, start the conversation by saying “This was my oops today.” Lean into discomfort and vulnerability with your children. When they share their “oops,” don’t try and fix it or problem solve—you can do this later if needed. Think about the emotional experience under their story and then validate. So for instance, we may respond with “that sounds incredibly frustrating” or “you tried so hard, and it didn’t work out” or “you can’t do that YET.” Be mindful of not filling any resulting silence with more words. Let your children sit with being uncomfortable.
By nurturing this at home, you give your children the gift of courage—the ability to take a risk, to persevere when they want to quit, to lean into the discomfort of making mistakes, to recover, and to move forward in a way that harnesses new learning and understanding. They’re human, and perfectly imperfect.