How to Help Our Kids Learn from Mistakes

Written by Ryan Denison
Published on February 27, 2017

As parents, one of our greatest fears is often that we’ll do something to screw up our kids. While my two children are still young, I already wonder at times whether I’m being too hard or not hard enough. How do you discipline a three-year-old, for example, in such a way that she’ll understand what she’s done wrong without making her feel as though she’s a lesser person for the mistake? Can a three-year-old even understand that distinction?

Unfortunately, if we’re not careful, that fear of parenting them into long-term damage can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a big part of why we often struggle so much with knowing how to motivate and discipline our kids. We want them to do well and know right from wrong, but we also want them to learn how to make those decisions on their own.

Most of us will gravitate towards one side of that spectrum or the other. Unfortunately, leaning too far in either direction can have some pretty disastrous consequences. Studies have shown that children of parents who were overly harsh with their kids—which includes physical punishment, yelling, and other forms of verbal threats—grew up to value the opinions of their peers more than that of their parents, engaged in more risky behavior, and were more likely to drop out of high school or college. As one researcher noted, “When you have this type of parenting, from a very early age you are basically kind of getting this message that you are not loved, and you’re getting this rejection message, so it would make sense to try and find that acceptance elsewhere,” such as with other kids.

While none of us want to raise our children like that, going too far in the other direction can have equally damaging consequences. Creating an environment in which our kids are never wrong and never experience the pains of failure simply doesn’t prepare them for a world in which such lessons are inevitable.

One of the best ways to avoid that outcome is to separate the process from the end result, as authors Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval point out. When the outcome is all that matters, or even what matters most, it diminishes all that can be gained by paying attention to the process.

For example, when my daughter draws on the carpet because she wasn’t coloring where she was supposed to, it’s most important that she understand why we didn’t want her to draw there in the first place. If we’ve told her before, we’ll probably still take away the markers for a little while as a discipline, but that’s not what matters most, nor is it likely to help her learn anything more than “I can’t color in this one specific spot.” During her potty-training days, when she had an accident because she couldn’t quite make it to the bathroom in time, we were sure to let her know how proud we were of her for trying, even though it didn’t quite turn out as we’d hoped. We then explained to her the importance of telling us she had to go sooner the next time.

The key is teaching them that, while mistakes and shortcomings are a fundamental part of  life and not something to minimize, what matters most is what they do from that point forward. Such communication will take more time and a greater commitment from us as parents than simply harping on their mistakes or ignoring them altogether, but it’s the best way to walk that middle ground and help our kids grow into responsible and successful adults. After all, our heavenly Father parents each of us this way.

God never minimizes the consequences of our sins or tells us that they aren’t a big deal (Revelation 3:19, Galatians 6:7–8). At the same time, however, he stands constantly ready to forgive us of those mistakes and help us to learn from them in order to grow more into the people he created us to be. Just think about how Jesus approached Peter after the disciple had denied him three times. The risen Christ confronted him about his mistakes but used that lesson to call him to do better going forward (John 21:15–19).

If that’s how our perfect God raises us, do our kids deserve any less?

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Ryan Denison

Ryan Denison has written for Denison Forum on Truth and Culture since August, 2010. He is currently working on a PhD in Church History at B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and regularly contributes content to the Forum in addition to assisting Dr. Denison with his research. He and his wife have a young daughter and three pets (which might as well be kids).

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