Mistakes: What Parents Can do to Help Their Children be Less Fearful about Mistakes and Setbacks (page 3)
As a father, clinical psychologist, educator, youth sports coach, and consultant I have been very interested in how children and adults understand and respond to mistakes in their lives. I strongly believe that one’s response to failure or to the possibility of failure is a strong indication of a person’s sense of self-worth and feelings of competence.
This article is dedicated to what parents can do to help their children be less fearful about mistakes and setbacks.
I should emphasize a point I have made in several previous articles about the concept of success. When I refer to people as successful I am not using as the main criteria their accumulated wealth or social status but rather the extent to which they are comfortable and content with their personal and professional lives, their compassion and generosity, their ability to handle adversity, and the ease with which they relate to others.
I noted that one framework that has provided me with guideposts to assess the ways in which we understand and respond to both mistakes and successes is attribution theory. This theory, originally proposed by psychologist Bernard Weiner, highlights that whether we are aware of it or not, we assume different reasons for why we succeed and fail and that these reasons are directly related to our self-esteem and confidence.
More specifically, successful people believe that mistakes provide opportunities for learning and future success. They attribute mistakes to conditions that can be changed. For instance, if children with high self-esteem fail a test that they believe was within their ability to pass, they will seek out the assistance of teachers or parents and/or develop more effective strategies for studying and learning. If they are playing basketball and an opposing player drives by them to score, they will listen closely to the coach about how to be a more effective defensive player in the future. It is not that they say in a jubilant voice, "I am happy to make mistakes so that I can learn." However, they do not experience failure as proof that they are failures. They view mistakes as expected occurrences.
In contrast, youngsters with low self-esteem are more likely to assume that they cannot modify situations in which they made mistakes, resigning themselves to the belief that they will continue to fail and that success is illusory. In my role as a youth basketball coach a child once told me, "I will never make a foul shot." He was convinced that he would never be able to do so, a perception that limited the probability of success in the future.
As a psychologist I have heard a wide spectrum of remarks reflecting a sense of hopelessness in youngsters when confronted with failure or the possibility of failure. Some are direct expressions of very low self-esteem while others represent self-defeating attempts to escape from a sense of failure. Such remarks include:
"Why should I try to study? I will fail anyway."
"Everyone is better than I am in spelling. Things will never get better."
"My saxophone is bad, that’s why I can’t learn to play."
"My parents did not buy me the right kind of glue. If they did, the model plane I made would not be broken."
If we subscribe to the basic tenets of attribution theory then we can ask the following question, "How do I say and do things with my children so that they will develop a healthy attitude towards mistakes and setbacks, that they will learn that mistakes are expected and accepted?" I would like to share some thoughts about what parents can do to nurture a positive mindset in children about mistakes.
Serve as a Model: Children are astute observers of the ways in which their parents handle mistakes. As parents we have countless opportunities to model for our children a healthy attitude towards making mistakes and dealing with setbacks. It is for this reason that I often ask parents how they think their children would answer the following question, "What do your parents do when they make mistakes?" At some point I would like to write a book titled, "Children’s Perceptions of How Their Parents Deal with Mistakes." Many parents at my workshops have half-joking, half-not, said, "Please don’t ask my kids that question."
I do ask it. The following are some of the negative responses I have gathered from children:
"They yell and scream at each other. They blame each other."
"They say, ‘What’s the use’ and give up."
"My dad said a word he always tells me not to say."
"My mom got angry at me for not wanting to join the soccer team because I thought I wasn’t good enough. Yet, when she was asked to give a talk for the Rotary Club in our town she made up an excuse that she was busy. I think she was afraid, so why get angry with me for something that she does?"
"I hate when my dad does something wrong since he usually blames me. Like one time he went through a red light and got a ticket and then said to me and my brother that our arguing caused him not to pay attention."
One of my all-time favorites was the response offered by a young boy when asked his parents’ reaction to mistakes. He said, "What’s a double martini?" Obviously his parents are not serving as effective models.
On the positive side, I have heard:
"When my dad tries to fix something in the house and it doesn’t work, he loves to joke and say, ‘I better pay attention to what I’m doing.’ Usually, after that he does an okay job."
"My mom once burned the food when my parents were having guests over. I thought she was going to be really upset but she said to my dad, ‘I guess we’ll have to order out.’ My dad laughed. Their friends weren’t even upset about it and they were all joking about times they had burned food."
"My dad was having problems with a project at work. You could tell it was on his mind but when he was playing chess with me at night, he seemed not to think of work. A few days later he said it was solved. He really seemed confident."
While modeling certain behaviors as a parent doesn’t guarantee our children will follow in our footsteps, we must remember that we are their primary teachers and children pay close attention to our reactions to various situations.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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