The 3 Questions You Need to Ask if Your Child is Afraid of Making Mistakes

Modern Parent
Photograph by Servet Rakipi

By Albiona Rakipiki

Processing mistakes starts with you

This phenomenon happens among not just kids but adults too — a paralyzing fear of making mistakes. I see it and hear it all the time — from adults I work with, friends, family, and children too.

I recently read the book “How to Raise Successful People” by Esther Wojcicki. In it, she cites Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, who is the author of the book “Mindset.”

Dweck identifies two different mindsets: fixed and growth. She describes how her freshman class at Stanford feels about mistakes. “All of them, male and female, were saying they were terrified of making a mistake, terrified of exposing inadequacies, terrified of being found out.”

This is how most people I know feel. As a parent, I wondered what I could do. I’ve talked about fear and failure and how we can re-frame this with our kiddos. Still, if we can’t overcome our fear of making mistakes, we lose access to innovation, creativity, original thinking, ingenuity, etc.

Here are the three questions to consider:

How do you treat yourself when you make a mistake?

Our kids see, hear and mostly feel everything we go through. When a mistake happens, I’ve witnessed parents’ self-talk sound something like this, “I’m so stupid. I completely forgot to lock the doors.” Or, “I can’t believe I did that — what was I thinking?”

How do you carry yourself when you make a mistake? Are you agitated, upset, or down? Is your energy low? These are the types of questions we need to ask ourselves because our kids absorb all of this from a young age.

Making mistakes is something I’ve always struggled with. I wouldn't say I like that terrible feeling that comes over you when you realize you’ve done something wrong. My heartbeat quickens, I experience shortness of breath, and a warm nauseating feeling washes over me. It isn’t perfect. But, until we can identify our own insecurities around making mistakes, your kids will scoop that insecurity right up and make it their own.

It’s not always easy, but I say this to my kids:

I made a mistake. Right now, I’m feeling bad about it, but once I work through this part, I know the mistake will show me something. I have to stay the course and continue to take every opportunity I can to learn.

As my husband says, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying, and growing means to make mistakes and learn.”

If your kids are younger, that may be hard for them to understand. Your message should be the same, but you can simplify the language.

Mommy made a mistake, but mistakes are serious because they teach kids and grown-ups how to do things better. I’m telling myself it’s ok, and I’m asking myself, what can I learn?

Walk your kids through the internal process of what happens when you make a mistake. We want to give them a healthy road map to name the things they’re experiencing and know the direction they’re headed.

What expectations are you placing on your kids, and do they have the room to make mistakes early?

I talk to many parents who tend to be overprotective. They mean well, but one of the drawbacks is they wind up contriving an environment where mistakes are not an option.

In many cultures, shame is the response to mistakes and a tool used to limit the number of mistakes. Here’s the issue: The fewer children experience mistakes early on, the more ill-equipped they’ll be to handle them later. Framing mistakes as hard — but necessary — to achieve optimal growth and learn is paramount.

One night, when my daughter was in the first grade, she was struggling to complete her math homework. I walked over to see if I could help, and I saw she did every problem wrong. She has always struggled with making mistakes or being wrong. It was always difficult to try to correct her. I asked her if she wanted help with her homework, and she firmly said, no, I didn’t do it wrong. I said, okay.

I let her go to school the next day with every problem wrong. I knew this was going to be hard for her. But she needed to have that experience. As parents, my husband and I have created an environment where we allow mistakes to happen.

Rather than framing mistakes as doing something wrong, allow your kiddos to experience them so they can get comfortable with the process; make a mistake, sit with the discomfort, and realize it has the potential to teach you.

It’s the only way we can build resilience.

How do you treat others when they make mistakes?

This question is vital when we consider how children interpret the impact of a mistake. Ask yourself these questions:

How do you treat a waiter or waitress who makes a mistake?

Do you roll your eyes and name-calling?

Do you make statements about how incompetent people are when they make a mistake?

Do you reference others who make mistakes as morons or idiots?

How do you treat loved ones when they make mistakes?

Are you quick to snap and say, “What are you doing? Why would you do that? What makes you think that’s a good idea?

I see this all the time. People have quick and usually intense responses to a loved one — often a partner — about what they perceive as a mistake. Your kids are watching, hearing, and feeling. If a child observes his parent react intensely every time a mistake occurs, he is immediately encoded with the idea that mistakes are bad. And they deserve harsh criticism. The child learns that incompetent people make mistakes and doesn’t want to be known as that.

It would help if you looked at this last question closely. These actions are the most insidious because your kids will take inventory of how mistakes are received, but they’ll do so silently. You won’t realize it until it manifests. It will present as a fear of failing and making mistakes.

Examples include: your children hiding their mistakes or lying about them. They’ll have difficulty coming to you when they’ve done something wrong. They may have highly emotional reactions when a mistake occurs. They’re afraid to ask for help because your reaction is uncertain to them.

Your negative response to mistakes is the one that can do the most harm. If there is one takeaway in this article, it’s this: Be aware of how you treat yourself and others when mistakes occur.

You can’t say to your kids; it’s ok if you make a mistake and then bite the head of the store employee who brings you the wrong item.

I hope that these questions will allow you to dive into how you process mistakes, the kind of learning environment you are or are not creating, and your treatment toward yourself and others. Instead of wondering why our kids are so afraid of making mistakes, get comfortable with the idea that mistakes happen to everyone. It’s how we respond to the mistake that can change the outcome for your kids.

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