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Why we should normalize mistakes



Published on Psychology Today


No one likes to make mistakes. At the very best it’s embarrassing, but at its worst, making mistakes can get you in trouble at work, or with your friends, and depending on the severity of the mistake, it can make you feel pretty bad about yourself. Despite the fact that we don’t like making mistakes, we all make them, and we make them every day.  Just this morning I sprayed my hair with static guard instead of dry shampoo—which I was using because I mistakenly slept too late to have time to wash my hair before taking my kids to school. Admitting this would be embarrassing if I didn’t already know that being a working mom is hard, and all my mom friends make dumb mistakes like this all the time. It’s harder to admit when you make a mistake that affects someone else; perhaps it hurts someone’s feelings or damages a friendship. In these cases, admitting fault can be even more important, and can make the friendship stronger in the end.

 

Mistakes happen in the workplace as well, and here, people seem even more reluctant to admit them. Perhaps it’s because of fear of embarrassment or some kind of negative consequence, or maybe it’s just pride, but I’ve seen people bend over backwards to avoid admitting that they did something wrong in the office. As a manager, when people won’t admit their mistakes, it makes my job pretty difficult, as mistakes are hard to fix if you can’t find the source. If mistakes are reported early on, it makes a business run more efficiently, and saves potential future errors from happening.

 

Finally, as a mom, when my kids won’t admit that they did something wrong, it makes it hard to teach the correct behaviors so that my kids can grow into competent adults. So what do we do? If admitting our mistakes is hard even for adults, how do we encourage it in our children?

 

Research suggests that children are more likely to tell the truth when they expect positive outcomes for truth telling from their parents. For example, in a study where children heard a story about a character who stole a cookie and later lied about it, children who were most likely to endorse a confession also expected more positive parental responses from truth telling (Smith & Rizzo, 2017). In other words, praising children for admitting their mistakes (instead of punishing them) might be one way to encourage them to own up to their errors.

 

Another way is to normalize mistake-making at home, which isn’t easy. As parents, it’s hard to let our children make mistakes, but research suggests that we should do exactly that. Recently, terms like “helicopter parenting” or “lawnmower parenting” have been used to describe parents who don’t let their kids make mistakes; instead, they remove obstacles that their kids face in order to encourage them to succeed (Odenweller, Booth-Butterfield, & Weber, 2014). Although helicopter parents often mean well, and are really only looking to protect their kids, this type of parenting has been associated with negative child outcomes, such as higher levels of anxiety and depression, lower ratings of psychological well-being (LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2011), as well as a lack of independence and ineffective coping skills (Odenweller, Booth-Butterfield, & Weber, 2014). In fact, while helicopter parents often do whatever it takes to help their children succeed in school, helicopter parenting is often associated with lower academic performance in children, more extrinsic or reward-based motivation, and avoidance goals for learning (Schiffrin & Liss, 2017). In other words, these children don’t develop the motivation to master new skills—they mostly just work hard to get a good grade—and they avoid feedback, as criticism or failure can lead to embarrassment or shame.

 

In essence, by denying children the ability to make mistakes, we are also denying them the ability to develop the flexibility to learn from those mistakes, and how to bounce back from them (LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2011).  And making mistakes turns out to be a really powerful tool for learning when those mistakes are acknowledged, and children get proper feedback. In one study that examined language literacy in over 400 classrooms, researchers found that classrooms with the highest language gains had teachers who were more responsive to children’s errors in ways that enhanced emergent literacy (Gabas et al., 2022). Further, in a classroom context, errors can be informative about children’s current knowledge state, and can thus help teachers figure what level of support is needed.

 

The gist is, we can all benefit from normalizing mistakes—by acknowledging them when we make them, and by reacting kindly when others admit to their own. This is important for us as adults, as it encourages strong relationships and a positive and productive work environment. But it is also important for us as parents, so that the next generation can learn how to acknowledge their mistakes, cope with them, and learn from them. One easy method that can be used at home is to model how to admit and cope with mistakes instead of keeping them to yourself. Did you spray your hair with static guard too today? Step in dog poop on your morning walk? Turn in a report at work a day late? Why not tell your kids about it—they can have a good laugh and learn a powerful lesson: That everyone (even mom) makes mistakes.

 

 Photograph by KATRIN BOLOVTSOVA/Pexels

References

 

Gabas, C., Cutler, L., & Schachter, R. E. (2023). Making Mistakes: Children's Errors as Opportunities for Emergent Literacy Learning in Early Childhood. The Reading Teacher76(6), 664-672.

 

LeMoyne, T., & Buchanan, T. (2011). Does “hovering” matter? Helicopter parenting and its effect on well-being. Sociological Spectrum, 31(4), 399-418.

 

Odenweller, K. G., Booth-Butterfield, M., & Weber, K. (2014). Investigating helicopter parenting, family environments, and relational outcomes for millennials. Communication Studies, 65(4), 407-425.

 

Schiffrin, H. H., & Liss, M. (2017). The effects of helicopter parenting on academic motivation. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(5), 1472-1480.

 

Smith, C. E., & Rizzo, M. T. (2017). Children’s confession-and lying-related emotion expectancies: Developmental differences and connections to parent-reported confession behavior. Journal of experimental child psychology, 156, 113-128.



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