Three-year-old Ethan frequently grabs toys from other children. As a result, his friends shriek at him in disapproval and his parents and teachers continually remind him that he needs to use words instead. So when will he figure out that snatching things just doesn't work?
Ethan is learning each time this happens! But it takes children time and lots of trial and error to master anything, whether it's effective social skills, catching a ball, or reading and writing words. Learning how to do things the "right" way requires a combination of maturation, spontaneous effort — motivated by the dual wish of wanting to become competent and to please loved and respected people — the flexibility to try something another way, and the ability to respect standards and limits set by others. It also means allowing for and being good-natured about mistakes.
At any age, we learn more from experience than from verbal instructions and advice, which is why Ethan's friends are extremely powerful teachers. If they won't play with Ethan because he's always grabbing toys, Ethan will more quickly understand the consequences of his actions and adjust his behavior accordingly.
Occasionally, children learn these lessons the hard way. Consider 6-year-old Margaret, who has a passion for dogs. She's been warned many times to approach animals with great caution, especially dogs she doesn't know. Still, while playing at a friend's house, she dashed excitedly across the yard and right up to a terrier tied to his doghouse. Frightened by the invasion of his space, the dog bit her leg.
When she had recovered from the incident, Margaret realized that this was what people had been talking about. While grownups need to take reasonable precautions to prevent children from getting hurt while learning life's essential lessons, children often need to experience the consequence firsthand before they truly understand. From the dog bite, Margaret has now learned what she evidently hadn't been able to learn from all the verbiage.
Helping Your Child Cope With a Mistake
How you help your child deal with a mistake she made is important to successful learning. Luckily, because Margaret had had many pleasant experiences with dogs in the past, and because her parents were sympathetic, she wasn't traumatized by this incident and was able to learn something from it.
Humiliating a child with an angry "I told you so!" is neither necessary nor helpful. As our little ones learn the ways of the world — whether by making the same mistakes repeatedly or learning the same lessons until they click — we need to show them we're on their side. Regularly responding to a child's behavior as if he's stupid or bad is a sure way to teach him that he is stupid and bad.
Remind your child that no one is perfect and that everyone, even grownups, makes mistakes. You can also say something comforting, like, "I know that was scary, and I bet the bite hurts. I'm sure you'll remember next time to move slowly when you're near an animal." Or tell them about a mistake that you made and how you were able to learn from it.
How to Encourage Your Child's Confidence
When a mistake is made, it takes confidence for a child to give it another try. The best way to promote confidence is not to bust it further! As much as possible, try to use encouraging comments like, "Good try! One of these days, it'll be easy for you." Criticism or teasing could backfire and won't help build self-esteem.
It's a good idea to keep an eye out for siblings or peers who put your child down when she drops a ball or falls off a bike. Your intervention will help protect her and strengthen her confidence.
If a child is afraid to try again, she probably feels unsure about the task at hand or may have low self-esteem. As a parent, you can enable your child and help her feel like a capable person. Assure her that you, her family, and her teachers think she can do it. This will give her the confidence to try again or try harder.
Sometimes a child may react to her own mistake with rage or withdrawal, or she might become very upset when she isn't perfect. In this case, the best approach is to reassure and comfort her verbally. Remind her that it takes time to learn new things and that each time you try, you are one step closer to being able to do it. Also try relaxing her home environment and choosing a classroom that is cooperative rather than competitive.
There is no better medicine, however, than a sense of humor. Learning to laugh at mistakes will go a long way toward lightening the feelings of failure and shame. And the best way to teach children to laugh at their mistakes is to laugh at your own.