Nobody’s perfect; we all know that. But it would appear that the best way to motivate children and get them to modify their behaviour is by paying less attention to their mistakes, not more. Research consistently shows that by focusing on what we’d like to see kids do, instead of what we’d like to see them do less of or stop doing altogether, we will not only get the behaviour results we want, but that they’ll also feel better about themselves and us.
The struggle for parents is that we tend to notice the mistakes so much more efficiently than the stuff that’s going well. I read somewhere that one of the reasons that “no” is so often a word that toddlers say is because as they’re learning language, it’s one of the words they hear most often. I don’t know if it’s possible to prove that one way or the other, but it is worth considering. How often do we say “no” to our children? Or put another way, how often is our attention and focus on the negative, rather than the positive?
Mistakes are hard to avoid. Sometimes we can’t even know that we’ve made a mistake until we’ve tried it out and taken a look at the results of our choices. We need to instil in our children that mistakes are fine, that we all make mistakes, and that there are very few mistakes that lead to truly disastrous consequences. What matters more than avoiding mistakes is gaining the courage to be imperfect, as Rudolph Dreikurs would say. Children need to develop the internal strength to acknowledge their mistakes, and move forward from them.
While our initial reaction may be to spend a great deal of time focusing on the events and decisions that lead up to the mistake (“What were you thinking?”, “Why would you do that?”, “What have you done?”, “Didn’t I just tell you to be careful?”), that will get us nowhere. We tend to believe that punishment is the best way to discourage a certain behaviour, but research consistently proves that to be a false belief – and perhaps you’ve noticed as much in your own household.
What works better is focusing on where to go from here, and what we do now that the mistake has been made. Looking at what can be done now gives our kids concrete solutions that they can act on to overcome feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment, and it helps them to develop the courage to try again. They start to build a list of times when they made mistakes, but then were able to overcome them.
And the truth is, as adults we know that once a mistake is made, it’s done. At that point, all the questioning and yelling and frustration in the world isn’t going to be able to undo it, so what’s the point? Questions, yelling, and frustration also don’t help our children to learn from their mistakes and feel confident that they can avoid them in the future, so we need to focus our efforts on not doing what we know doesn’t work, and change our approach to something more effective.
Here’s a quick plan for dealing with mistakes: demonstrate through your approach that mistakes aren’t the end of the world (i.e., avoid criticism and judgment), work together to find out where things went wrong and what could be done in the future to avoid the same mistake again, work together to find a solution to the current problem, and encourage your child to try again. Remember: the courage to be imperfect!