How to Help Children Learn from Mistakes

When you were young, did your parents ever say something like, “I’ve told you a dozen times (or ten thousand times)!” when you kept making the same mistake? Did you perhaps even hear, “What’s the matter with you? Are you stupid?” or something similar?

Maybe you have said something like this to your own child out of frustration. If you have, be kind to yourself. Parents make mistakes, too! 

Yet we need to understand that, in most cases, how we communicate is a huge factor affecting a child’s ability –– or seeming inability –– to learn.

One of the most important things I recognized after being a parent for about 4 years was that the cause of my frustration was not my child’s behavior. I discovered that, under all the internal dialogue about “having a difficult child,” my frustration arose from a deep lack of self-respect and faith in myself. I feared that I didn’t have the ability to be a good husband and a good father. Up until then I had been completely unaware of this insecurity on my part!! 

I had been making a very common mistake in my parenting: I believed that outer events, including my wife’s and children’s behaviors, were the cause of my emotional turmoil. But once I saw that I was creating my own turmoil by following fear-based thoughts about myself, I was able to begin helping my children learn and change behavior through respectful, enjoyable communication.

We’re all learning, all the time! Here are my favorite reminders for helping children learn.

8 Ways to Communicate with a Child to Help Them Learn

1. Focus on the child with love, respect, and encouragement. Focus constructively on the risks related to their behavior, not on their personhood. Before you speak to the child about the lesson you want them to learn, communicate empathy and encouragement to them, regardless of your emotional state.

“I’ll bet you are having so much fun drawing you want to keep going even though it’s bedtime. Let’s make going to bed fun too!”

2. Once you have reassured them that you’re on their side, explain your understanding of their behavior and suggest an alternative.  

“When I see you swinging the pitcher, I can tell you are having fun and I am always  happy to see you having fun –– as long as what you’re doing is safe. I think the pitcher might bump something and break while you are swinging it. So please hand it to me and we’ll find something safer and more fun to swing.

3. Show empathy by asking questions. Assume you can always learn more about why they’re doing what they’re doing by asking questions.

“Were you grabbing the kitty’s tail because you wanted the kitty to stay close to you?

4. Explain how the changes you want them to make will create better results for them. 

“If you speak to animals quietly and pet them gently, they will usually come to you on their own.”

5. Practice the new behavior with them. Make it fun or silly, like a game.

“Let’s practice being gentle and not pulling tails. I’ll be the kitty, and here’s my tail (swishing a towel behind you).” The child will probably want to practice being the kitty, too!

6. If you do have irritated feelings, make it clear to the child why the behavior is upsetting to you and reassure them that you love them.  

“I love you and I appreciate that you’re learning. We all sometimes make a mess when we’re learning something new. I’m feeling frustrated about having to clean up this mess right now because I think I’ll be late for work. But I am happy you’re exploring and learning.”

7. Avoid communicating in a way that triggers fear (shouting, waving arms, rolling eyes, irritable tone of voice).

Fear freezes our brain such that we can’t learn effectively, if at all. When we giant adults trigger fear in a child, all of that child’s attention goes into survival mode. Then no mental attention is left over to learn what you want to help them learn.

8. Let them know that you make mistakes too, and that mistakes are simply an opportunity to learn. 

Mistakes help us! Share how you enjoyed learning from mistakes when you were young:

“When I was learning to ride a bike, at first I fell down a lot, and once I skinned my knee and had to wash it and put a bandaid on it. But each time I got back on the bike and rode again, it got easier to stay balanced and keep going. Pretty soon I almost never fell off the bike!”

Making it clear to your child that you are their unshakeable ally is a great blessing for you both. It assures the child you love them no matter what, and that they can come to you with anything. And by doing this, you’re showing yourself that you have what it takes to be a kind and helpful parent. 

Life is learning. Enjoy the ride!