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Opportunities versus “Mistakes”

Parents often ask what they can do when their children become upset over mistakes they’ve made on school work. For example, a mom reported that her son became very upset when he took a quiz and missed one question. He did not focus on the 9 out of 10 that were correct, but on the one that he missed. He didn’t think he should be making any mistakes at all!

This can be a tricky issue. We need to examine our own actions, behaviors, and statements to see if we are contributing to the child reacting in this way. Many parents say that it’s not coming from them—they are always positive and talk in terms of how many questions or problems a student gets right. That may be, but are we giving them messages in other ways during daily life that suggest that “mistakes” are “bad”? After all, we all grew up with the idea that the best score is 100% and the best grade is A+. If your children are in a traditional school program, this is probably the message they are getting there and this could also be the message in a homeschool program.

mistakes-2460576__480We also need to realize that the word “test” in itself gives the idea that the student will be “measured”—and that the score determines how “good” or “smart” you are. This is a major reason why tests fail to teach or to be positive motivators in most students’ lives. They are usually associated with feelings of stress or fear, and often lead to disappointment, sadness, and beliefs of inadequacy.

In contrast, let’s look at people who perceive “mistakes” in a very different way. For example, it is said that Thomas Edison did over 1000 experiments trying to invent the light bulb. He was asked how he could keep going after making so many mistakes. His response: What mistakes? Each time I’m just learning what doesn’t work, bringing me closer to what does work. Similarly, the most successful salespeople look forward to being turned down by potential clients. Their reasoning: the more no’s I get the closer I am to a big “YES.”

These people are not seeing mistakes—they are seeing learning opportunities! Many of our best inventions—styrofoam, post-it notes, etc.— started out as “mistakes.” The person involved was trying to do something else and something went wrong—lucky for us, someone saw beyond the mistake and a new invention was born. All of our famous inventors, scientists, and creative people made lots of mistakes—this is the only way they could get to the discovery they were looking for, by being willing to get it “wrong” so many times.

It’s important to get this concept across to kids. And we need to make it “safe” for them to make mistakes. The number one requirement for learning is safety. If our students do not feel emotionally safe to explore, try, and take risks in their learning, their potentials will not be realized.

For example, there are many students who stop asking questions in the classroom or who don’t raise their hands to participate because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing or saying something “stupid.”

In order to be successful at anything, including learning, you have to be willing to make mistakes. It’s the “fail your way to the top” attitude:  if I keep trying, discovering, experimenting, I’ll get there. This is what separates the people who achieve their goals from those who don’t. In her book, “Work Less Make More,” Jennifer White says, “Fail often so you can succeed sooner.”

The more we can see “mistakes” as opportunities and incorporate this concept into our everyday family life, the better it will be for our kids. One way to get help with this is to read stories together of people who turned mistakes into opportunities. There are several books on this subject. If you go to and put “mistakes” in the search box, you will get a whole list. Here are a few to get you started:

Mistakes That Worked, by Charlotte Foltz Jones (reading level 9-12 yr)

Accidents May Happen: 50 Inventions Discovered by Mistake, Foltz (9-12 yr)

Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation, Farson

Failing Forward—How to Make the Most of Your Mistakes, Maxwell

If parents and teachers continually point out what students are doing “right” and if “mistakes” are treated as learning opportunities rather than “problems,” students will get the idea.Learning banner

Wouldn’t it be great if our kids could grow up seeing opportunities all around them?!

copyright 2020 by Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis
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