Helping Children Embrace Mistakes For A Growth Mindset

emotional intelligence  positive parenting 

By Ashley Patek

Helping Children Embrace Mistakes For A Growth Mindset

I sat beside my three-year-old daughter as we colored in her favorite Peppa Pig coloring book. There was a calm about the room, about us, as we worked as a team to bring the pages to life. My mama heart was relishing the silent connection. 

But only mere seconds into that feel-good thought, I saw a red crayon fly across the room. I turned to my daughter whose body had stiffened. The sound that came next, that left her small body, had me wondering if we were still in her bedroom or had unknowingly traveled to a lion’s den in the Sahara. Whoa, did I miss something? I was still trying to catch up. 

“I colored out of the lines,” she wailed. “It's ruined!” As tears brimmed her eyes and then fell down her cheeks, I watched as she crumpled the page and stomped off to the trash can. 

I wasn’t sure what to do but, as I watched my daughter become swallowed up in her big emotions, I knew that I wanted to be there for her. I remembered a tool from my positive parenting class, so I decided to drop to my knees, look her in the eyes, and show her that she was safe and her feelings were okay. 

“You colored out of the lines?”

“Yes! And now it is ruined. It’s not the way I wanted to do it. I never want to color again!” 

I didn’t know what to say. The logical part of my adult brain wanted to tell her it wasn’t that big of a deal, and she would very likely color again. But I refrained, knowing that, to her, it was a big deal. In my best attempt to validate her experience, I echoed back, “You never want to color again?”

This time she threw her arms around me and sobbed into my shoulder. I hugged her close and helped her name her big feelings. “You seem upset that you colored out of the lines. I understand. It can be frustrating.” She wailed louder, nodding her head. As I held her, her sobs eventually turned to soft sniffles, and then, after time, her brain shifted from that wild lion and back to my ready-to-color daughter.

Later that night, I sat in bed replaying the events of the day. I felt confused and discouraged. Truth is, this wasn’t the first time and I had a lurking suspicion that it was not the last. My daughter seemed to crumble anytime she made a mistake - if she cut or colored out of the lines, or her drawing didn’t turn out like she intended, or if she accidentally spilled his cup of milk. 

My heart ached for her because I could see some of these traits in myself. Not that I give up per se, but that for a long time I too felt the need to be perfect, and mistakes felt imperfect. The weight of that was too heavy and it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized I was carrying such unrealistic expectations for myself. 

Seeing this part of me in my daughter, I desperately wanted to teach her another way. I began searching for ways to foster a growth mindset so that when inevitable mistakes or mishaps happened, she could feel empowered to shift, create something new, or turn her problem into an opportunity. 

I turned to my friends. It seemed like other mamas were searching for these answers too. I felt relieved that I was not alone. In fact, it only fueled my motivation to compile a list of tools for myself and fellow parents. 

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8 ways to help your child embrace mistakes

1. Empower your children to try things on their own: As parents, it can be challenging to rein our own impatience and resist the urge to take over for our children when they are completing a task. When we do this, however, we unintentionally send one of two messages: that they are incapable or that we can do it better. Instead, encourage your child to do the tasks they can do for themselves - such as getting dressed, clearing their plate from the table, and so forth - to build confidence. When children feel powerful, they feel more empowered to try new tasks. 

2. Praise effort over results: If you are anything like me, when your child brings you their artwork, a knee-jerk response is to praise their product with something like, “Wow, this is beautiful. You are such a little artist. You are the best painter ever!” From what I learned more recently, however, when children hear responses that praise what they did rather than how hard they worked, it mirrors more of an evaluation and they often feel pressure to live up to the success every time. This may lead to a fixed mindset where the child, in order to ensure they stay the “best painter ever,” avoids painting more challenging things or trying new things. By praising the effort, your child feels motivated and proud from within. Here are some things we can do to help us praise the efforts of our children: 

  • Comment on what your child did that was successful: "You kept trying until you got it. I love how you kept going when things got hard!"
  • Empathize with the excitement your child feels about their achievement: "Wow! You worked really hard on that! I enjoyed watching you do this activity."
  • Encourage: "That's a hard puzzle piece, and I see you trying every space to see where it fits. I believe in you!"
  • Empower: “That looked like it was so easy. Let’s try something more challenging to help your brain grow!”

3. Encourage mistakes and show your mistakes, too: One valuable tool I got from Generation Mindful’s Time-In-ToolKit was that mistakes help me learn and grow. One day, my daughter and I colored the Mistakes Help Me Learn And Grow worksheet that came in the ToolKit. As the tears started to well in her eyes after her crayon slipped past the coloring line, we talked about how our mistakes are opportunities to learn and to create something different. And I focus on modeling this too. When I make a mistake, I demonstrate some grace to myself, knowing she is watching and learning from my response. 

4. Model self-encouragement and positive self-talk: Research says that children who talk themselves through challenges stay calmer and are able to persevere when things get tough. Create mantras and positive self-affirmations that your child can use during moments of frustration. Some of our favorite mantras are: 

  • I am capable of doing hard things. 
  • With my breath, I reset. 
  • I can do anything I believe I can. 

As your child learns this form of self-talk, it becomes an internal comforting voice to encourage and motivate them. Model these affirmations yourself. Your tone becomes their inner voice. 

5. Help them name emotions to tame emotions:  You have heard it before - “I am so stupid!” As a parent who loves their child, those words can hurt your heart. Our instinct is to say things like, “You are not stupid. You are so smart. Don’t talk to yourself that way.” Despite our best intentions, this can feel dismissive. Rather than denying their feelings, we can empathize with them. Saying something like, “you sound really frustrated with yourself” can help give words to the emotion behind their statement without minimizing what they are feeling. 

6. Talk about the brain: The human brain is always changing and is changeable. Teach your child about their brain and how mistakes help us learn and learning helps grow our brain muscle. 

7. Invite your child to ask questions: Teach your child to look at mistakes with a curious eye and ask questions: What would I like to change? What could I add to it? Focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t. Life will inevitably throw us curve balls outside of our control, yet we can control how we respond and transform a problem into a solution. 

8. Teach the power of YET: Carol Dweck talks about the power of the word yet. When children learn to use this three-letter word, it opens doors. The word yet gives children a learning curve, helping them understand that their abilities are not fixed, but rather can be developed with practice and effort. Remember, it isn’t what you can’t do, it is what you can’t do yet. 

Whether your kiddo misses a key while playing the piano, strikes out at baseball, colors out of the lines, or gets a grade lower than they wanted, we, as parents, have a beautiful teaching opportunity. It becomes a moment to honor big feelings surrounding their mistake, and a tool to help them accept and maybe even celebrate it. And above all, we can show our children that they are love and loved as they learn and grow.

•  •  •

Generation Mindful creates educational tools, toys, and programs that nurture emotional intelligence through play and positive discipline. 

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