One of the foundational concepts of Positive Discipline is that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. As someone who grew up with a fixed mindset, this idea was transformative for me. Often praised for being “smart” as a child, the moment something became too difficult, I just gave up and stopped trying. As wonderful as it felt to be praised, the moment someone criticized me or showed any kind of disappointment, my self worth plummeted.
People often ask me about the most common issues I see in middle school and high school students, and my response is always the same: anxiety. When I entered the international teaching community, I was struck by the amount of students that were presenting with symptoms of anxiety, and often times coupled with depression. Upon arriving in Asia, this observation became even more pronounced. Many students have an intense fear of failure, and for some, a quite skewed belief about what constitutes failure. This fear leads to procrastination, test anxiety, social anxiety, and in more severe cases, depression, self harm and suicidal ideation. As parents and educators, we have to work together to change this mindset!
Words are not enough. We have to take an honest look at ourselves and ask the question: “When it comes to making mistakes, what are we modeling for our children?” When we make a mistake, do we admit it and try to fix it, or do we lie, deny, and blame? When we make a mistake, do we have compassion for ourselves and start to problem solve, or do we get angry, put ourselves down, or withdraw? When someone else makes a mistake, do we offer to support and help problem solve, or do we yell, belittle, and reprimand? When someone else makes a mistake and tries to own it, do we offer compassion and forgiveness, or do we judge, criticize, and gossip?
I have been working with the students in my PSHE classes on something psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs called “Mistaken Goals”. Dreikurs believed that all humans need to feel a sense of significance and belonging, and when one fails to experience this, one acts out in misguided ways in an attempt at making this connection. We’ve been looking at the question: “Why do people sometimes say and do hurtful things?”. The bottom line is people who are hurt often hurt others- or themselves. So it stands to reason that when a child (or anyone) makes a mistake, there is already a part of them that hurts and therefore further exacerbating that hurt by punishing the mistake only continues the cycle of discouragement. One of my favorite quotes by Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline, is “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make a child do better we need to make them feel worse?”.
Children are incredibly aware of the world around them, and the messages they receive about mistakes- intentional or unintentional- are internalized. If we want our children to be gritty, resilient, risk-takers, we need to be teaching that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. If we want our children to succeed, we need to teach them how to fail.
During one of my Positive Discipline trainings, I learned about a family who spend a part of their dinner each evening going around the table and talking about a mistake they made that day. They would share the mistake and what they learned from it, and it was often done in a light-hearted and even humorous way. This practice normalized mistakes and therefore gave the children the courage to accept responsibility when they made a mistake. Another opportunity for sharing mistakes and problem-solving together can take place during a family or class meeting. Again, this process not only teaches students that mistakes are normal and helps them learn to take responsibility; it also teaches important life skills such as empathy, compassion, and problem-solving.
The ability to admit to a mistake also leads to the development of another important life skill- the ability to be vulnerable. As Dreikurs said, all humans need to feel a sense of significance and belonging, and it is impossible to accomplish this without a certain amount of vulnerability. Author and renowned speaker Brene Brown gave a fabulous Ted talk on the topic of vulnerability. Please watch it, and ask yourself, “How will I model vulnerability for my child?”.