What to do when your child makes a mistake? Accept, celebrate and learn!

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

I would like to thank my dear friend Vivek Patel at meaningfulideas.com for inspiring this post.

little girl with a basket of apples

In considering what to do when your child makes a mistake, we need to remember that when a child makes a mistake and is reprimanded or criticized, it prevents him from learning from the mistake.

He feel so ashamed and put down by the reprimand that he wants to put the whole event out of his memory and so he tries to forget about it, and so the next time when the same situation arises he's more likely to make the same mistake again. The point of a reprimand is supposedly that the child will think, “Last time I did this I got an unpleasant reprimand, so I'll be careful not to do it again so I don't get a another reprimand.” But it never works, since he has always forgotten the reprimand as he put it out of its mind because it was so unpleasant. In addition, such a learned response mechanism would require a very high level of maturity and responsibility, which most children simply can’t possess!

Reprimands for mistakes harms self-esteem

When you criticize or reprimand for making mistakes the child thinks, “I am not acceptable when I make mistakes, I am no good. Only when I do things right am I worthwhile.” Therein lies the genesis of perfectionism. However when we accept and even celebrate mistakes, the child learns the great, golden truth that, “I am always a worthwhile person even when I make mistakes.” Therein lies the basis of true self-esteem.

The truth is, children need to make volumes and volumes of mistakes in order to learn. Take a child learning to walk. He falls down constantly. Do we criticize him and reprimand him every time he falls? That is surely ridiculous! Similarly, all the mistakes a child makes is an extension of that toddlerhood and should be treated in the same accepting way.

Accepting mistakes in a calm, relaxed, non-critical manner allows the child to remember the event and to learn from it. Not only that, mistakes are such an important learning experience, that they should be celebrated and enjoyed for the great event that they are! The more we celebrate them the more the child will learn!

Therefore what to do when your child makes a mistake: Make it pleasant!

boy with a glass of milk

One parent I know had a son who was unhappy because he didn't get something he wanted, and a tantrum was brewing. There was a half a paper cup of coffee left on the sidewalk and the boy kicked it getting coffee all over his pants. This is not ideal behavior, but the father celebrated the mistake by saying, “Nice kick, Joey,” who responded, “Thanks buddy!” That celebration of the mistake completely prevented a tantrum and put the child in a great mood. He felt so loved and validated, that the need to engage in such mischief in the future was greatly reduced. The father made the child feel great about himself and that is the surest way to preventing this behavior and the repetition of mistakes. The pleasantness of the whole interaction will ensure that the child will remember that it’s not a good idea to kick full coffee cups, and that pleasure will lead to the maturity to refrain from doing it again.
When a child makes a mistake he automatically feels ashamed and embarrassed on his own. We definitely don’t need to add to it! In fact by celebrating and making light of the mistake, we save the child from his shame, and teach him to accept himself with his imperfections. That pleasure will ensure that he remembers and learns from the event!

Reprimands do more harm than good

Let's say a child picked the icing off a cake that was being saved for some guests. This is very annoying but reprimanding the child is going to make him feel terrible and will not reduce the chance of him repeating the behavior at all. He will just block the whole experience out of his memory and when the next cake comes around he won't be able to resist the temptation. Better to keep such cakes wrapped up and out of sight. When he gets older he will learn such impulse control, but you can't stop it at a young age. No amount of reprimands will fix it, they only harm the parent-child relationship!

For a deeper discussion of the pitfalls of scolding and reprimands, click here.

Let's say a child lost 10 dollars on the way home from the store. The best course of action is not to show any reaction. Say, “OK, don’t worry about it, everybody makes mistakes.” He will feel guilty enough by himself. Don’t even adults occasionally lose things? Next time he goes to the store you can remind him to be very careful with the change. “Keep it in a wallet in a special pocket all by itself because I need that money to buy something else important.” Respecting him in this way will teach him to rise to the occasion and be more responsible. Reprimands only do harm.

Tolerate mischief with a smile

I know a father of many boys who, when something spills, the only thing he says is, “The cheerios spilled, the broom is over there.” When someone throws the ball and knocks down the lamp he doesn't say anything, and just picks it up. 99 percent of their rowdy, mischievous and loud behavior goes completely unnoticed by their father he knows that is much wiser to calmly tolerate then to reprimand.

Child listening to sea shell

If you must reprimand, do so very sparsely. Amazingly and paradoxically, the less you point out mistakes the more likely that when you do, although it can do some harm, it may be well taken. When reprimands are rare it may cause the children to perk up and think, “Wow, mommy’s telling me something here I’d better listen.” But the more often they are heard, the less they will be heeded. That one father I mentioned before doesn't tolerate the use of curse words because it goes against his values. If a child ever uses one he responds with a sharp, “Hey!” and they almost always comply because they know that one of the few rules their father has is no curse words, and they can happily tolerate a small number of restrictions. Otherwise he reprimands them very rarely. 

Be ever so gentle

In addition, instead of criticizing and giving instructions: “You shouldn't have done it that way, you should've done it this way,” you can ask the child, “Are you happy with the way things turned out?” This allows him room to decipher himself where he needs improvement. Such a realization is much more likely to stick because it comes from inside himself and not really from the parents. You can ask him, “If you could do that over would you do it the same way? If he says yes, then say “Ok,” and he will understand himself that there is room for improvement. If you feel the need you can very gently point out, “Maybe if you tried it this way you might like the results,” but be very careful about making him feel criticized!
Not only is celebrating mistakes a great way to get children to learn but it will do wonders for the parent-child relationship, which is the most crucial element in any child’s life!

For a fascinating discussion about how misbehavior is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with your child, click here.

Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal and a high level of parenting skill, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly or immediately. Rather have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.

Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, or the specialties on my website, download one of my informative free reports or view my video. If you are facing challenges with what to do when your child makes a mistake and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!