Dear parents,

How familiar is it the image of a child crying out of frustration when they make a mistake in their homework, while playing sports or even participating in a fun activity? For adults, it may often seem silly that children would get upset over such little things, but when keeping in mind the ratio of mistake to age, we start to get a sense of how they might feel – the same way we do when failing at a task at work.

Making mistakes and errors can spark a whole spectrum of emotions for most of us, ranging from sadness and anger all the way to frustration and embarrassment.

So how exactly do we learn to react to mistakes?

From a very young age, the way peers, family members and teachers react to children’s mistakes usually sets the tone for how they will react to their own errors later on. Whether their errors are met with understanding and encouragement or disappointment and pressure to do better, children will either learn that mistakes are normal or that they are a sign of failure.

How do we make sure we have the proper response to mistakes?

Parents are often conflicted about their reaction to a child’s error and most of them struggle between two polar opposites and a middle path:

1. One type of parent will praise the child no matter what the result of the action is.

Depending on the age, an appropriate response to the child’s effort is necessary. Praising the child regardless of the outcome will teach them that no matter what they do, no matter the effort put in and the result, it will always be enough. This will, most likely, set very low frustration standards for the child and they will experience unpleasant feelings once they reach a situation where their effort was not enough.

2. One type of parents will highly value academic results

This type of parent is the one who will always expect more of their child. Hoping that their child will get the best results and thus (perhaps) will do better over all in life, these parents set very high expectations and seldom praise the child’s effort. This, in turn, might teach the child that no matter what they do, they will not be good enough.

3. Another type of parent will not value academic results

Hoping to steer away from rigorous teaching styles, this type of parent will allow the child to manage school/learning-related situations all on their own. The child decides if and when they will do the homework, study and their results will be neither punished nor praised.

When the child is young, they do not put in effort for themselves, their aim is to please others as they are not yet self-aware, so when parents decide to not react to the child’s effort in school, the child has no frame of reference and will most likely be confused in regards to what is expected of them.

So which way is the best way to act when a mistake occurred?

Maintaining a relaxed attitude is crucial. It is never too late to remind ourselves that even though good grades may contribute to the success of the child in life, they do not ensure it, so putting large amounts of pressure on this is not necessary.

Should the child make an error, the most recommended response is to be firm but kind. Punishment should never be the answer, as it does not raise intrinsic motivation, but it only frustrates the child. Instead, when a mistake is made, make sure you have acknowledged it but you are also supporting your child in fixing it. Praise them when they have done well, but make sure you have specific standards for this and that they are maintained over all subjects in school.

Instead of asking “Couldn’t you do better?” try asking “Do you think there could have been anything else you could have done?” What you want is for the child to be honest towards themselves and really be capable of evaluating their own motivation, effort and result and finding the perfect balance between these three.

Here are a few tips on how to help your child accept their mistakes:

  • Let them know that you do not expect them to be perfect.
  • Let them know that your emotions towards them do not change depending on the mistake or the grade.
  • Help them focus on the solution but do not solve the issue for them.
  • Make sure you encourage the child to take responsibility for their mistake, but do not punish them when they do so as it will stop them from being honest next time.
  • Do not bring up past mistakes that your child has made, unless they have used the same solution that would be useful now.
  • Praise their effort and encourage them.
  • Normalize the situation by letting them know that other children have found this difficult as well.
  • Help them find the balance between motivation, effort and result.
  • Make sure you let them know that being burnt out from work is not a sign of being passionate and hardworking. Teach them the importance of breaks and effort dosage.
  • Monitor your reactions to your own mistakes.

Children pay attention not only to how others react to their mistakes but also to how adults react to their very own mistakes. They will notice your reaction when you make an error, they will see whether you are compassionate and kind to yourself or not. You may be forgiving all of your child’s mistakes but not your own and this will be noticed.

You are your child’s main frame of reference. Start by being understanding of your own errors and you will teach your child to be as well.