When your child comes home with a math or spelling test that they didn’t do well on, what is your reaction? Is that failure an opportunity to learn, or is it a negative experience that hinders their success? How you answer that question can have a significant effect on whether your child develops a growth mindset, believing that hard work can make them smarter and more successful.
Mistakes Play an Important Role
As legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden once said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” To help your child develop a growth mindset and learn from their mistakes, it’s important to know the four types of mistakes, which of them are most useful, and how to learn the most from them.
- Stretch Mistakes
Stretch mistakes occur when we’re trying to expand our abilities by doing things beyond what we can already do. When we are reaching beyond our current abilities, mistakes are inevitable. Stretch mistakes are always positive, because if we never made them it would mean we were never trying anything new.
While we can sometimes get stuck making the same stretch mistake over and over, it may be due to our going through the motions of trying something new rather than truly focusing on improving, to using an approach that is ineffective, or to reaching too far beyond our abilities. When making stretch mistakes, it is important to reflect on what we are doing and focus on making improvements.
- The Aha-Moment Mistakes
While you can expect to make stretch mistakes, some mistakes take you by surprise but still can be a positive experience. These aha-moment mistakes happen when we lacked knowledge to act correctly but provide us with insight when we make them. Many scientific and technological breakthroughs have come from a scientist or engineer making an aha-moment mistake, often with a “that’s weird” comment. The microwave oven in your kitchen came about when an engineer discovered that the microwaves from a radar set he was working on started to melt the candy bar in his shirt pocket. You can help your child develop the ability to learn from aha-moment mistakes by asking them to reflect on why things happened the way they did, especially when something has gone wrong.
- The Sloppy Mistakes
Sloppy mistakes happen when we are doing something we already know how to do but don’t do correctly because we aren’t paying proper attention to the task. We all make the occasional sloppy mistake simply because we’re human. A sloppy mistake is a chance for us to sharpen our focus and pay more attention to what we are doing. Sloppy mistakes can become aha-moment mistakes when we reflect on them. For example, recognizing that we write faster and type more accurately in the morning than in the afternoon or evening can lead to making sure we block out morning time for productive writing and saving answering e-mails for later in the day.
- The High-Stakes Mistakes
High-stakes mistakes are those we don’t want to make because the consequences are severe. The bomb disposal technician deals with potential high-stakes mistakes often, which is why those technicians have put in place processes and procedures to minimize mistakes, think critically about the problems they face, and practice those techniques so they become second nature. When informing our children about avoiding a high-stakes mistake, it is important to be clear with them about why we don’t want the risk-taking behavior or experimentation in that situation and how these situations are different from learning opportunities.
Beyond life-threatening situations, high performance situations can also be high-stakes. For a football team, reaching the Super Bowl can be a situation where mistakes have high stakes. It is similar for a student planning on getting into a highly competitive university when taking the ACT or SAT. In these situations, it is important to emphasize the effort already put in to reach this situation, to reflect on what has been learned along the way, and to focus on doing one’s best.
John Wooden had two other sayings regarding this approach, not surprising as his teams won ten NCAA championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row. The coach knew something about high-stakes situations. He told his teams, “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming,” and “Just do the best you can. No one can do more than that.” These are important beliefs to instill in your child, as doing your best is not just during the big game or important test, but also in doing your best to become the best you can be during practice or when doing homework.
Lessons Learned from Famous “Failures”
Your child can also learn from failure by looking at other famous “failures,” such as:
- Rihanna overcame a childhood affected by her father’s addiction to crack cocaine to become an R&B superstar. One of her tattoos reads, “Never a failure, always a lesson.”
- Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player in history, was cut from his high school basketball team during his sophomore year.
- JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, was a poor single mother whose first book was rejected by 12 publishers before she was finally able to sell it.
- Abraham Lincoln had his first business (running a general store) went bankrupt and lost two elections to the US Senate before being elected president.
- Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his career, a record that stood for decades, but also struck out even more—1,330 times. He viewed those mistakes in a positive light, though, saying, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
- Paul MacCready built the first successful human-powered plane to win the Kremer prize that had gone unclaimed for almost two decades. Prior to MacCready, most human-powered plane teams spent a year building a plane, took it out to test, and then after it crashed, spent another year building a new plane based on what they learned from the crash. MacCready took a different approach, designing a plane that could be quickly repaired or redesigned so he could crash in the morning, try again later that morning, crash again, and then try more times in the afternoon. By failing faster, MacCready accomplished in six months what dozens of different teams couldn’t do in 18 years.
- Thomas Edison tried thousands of different materials when developing his light bulb. He said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Don’t Focus on Abilities, Focus on What Can Be Learned
How you react to your child’s failure sends an important message. Even a well-meaning, “It’s okay, you’re still a great writer” when your child comes home with a bad math grade can send the message that it’s time to give up on math rather than learning from what they got wrong. In fact, research has shown that how children perceive “being smart” depends not on how their family viewed intelligence but how they react towards failure.
Finally, Great Schools has a useful video that you can share with your child about the importance of learning from failure.
Photo courtesy SuperWikipediano via Wikimedia Commons.