I distinctly remember one morning last summer when my older daughter was working on an art project and made a mistake. She paused for a moment and then on her own said, “It’s ok. Mistakes are groovy.” While at home we do talk about how it’s okay to make mistakes and that we should use them as learning opportunities, I was taken aback by the specificity of her statement. Upon inquiring a bit more, I learned that “mistakes are groovy” is a catchphrase from Camp Galileo, an innovation summer camp for kids. My daughter has now attended two summers in a row and absolutely loves it. The camp is focused on teaching children how to innovate by encouraging risk-taking, problem-solving and learning how to fail in a “self-assured way.”
There has been widespread research about the benefits of embracing failure as stepping stones in the learning process. The research has spanned from well-known psychologists such as Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” to companies such as IDEO, an innovation consulting firm, which believes that to innovate we need to “learn from failure,” listing this phrase as a core company value.
Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes and are part of our human existence. There’s not a single person who has not made a mistake. Each mistake can be an opportunity to do something differently. Perhaps mistakes can be used to learn how to improve a skill or learn how to better solve a problem, much like Dweck, IDEO or Camp Galileo advocate. Or perhaps we choose to not repeat a certain behavior; or perhaps a mistake is just an opportunity to self-reflect and better understand why certain decisions were made. But before doing something differently, a necessary step with mistakes is to accept that it was even made. This acceptance is a practice of self-compassion.
We are often our worst critics and judges, having regrets about choices we made or what we could have done differently. I am just as guilty of this as the next person. Sometimes it feels like there’s a repetitive cycle of thoughts in my mind, the broken record about mistakes from the past. It’s a work in progress to break this cycle and to break the conditioned patterns from my childhood.
“Don’t carry your mistakes around with you. Instead place them under your feet and use them as stepping stones.”
For my girls, I hope they can learn early on that mistakes are a necessary part of life and that it’s okay to make them. I want them to know that they can be gentle with themselves, practicing ahimsa (nonviolence) with themselves first and foremost. I know that this can’t be learned from a single weekly kindness project. It will be an ongoing lifelong process that we’ll have to ‘rinse and repeat’ as we move through various life stages.
For now, here are a few ways we have begun the process:
- Reading books about the topic: There’s tons of books that teach children how to handle mistakes with grace and self-compassion. A couple of our favorites are ‘Beautiful Oops‘ by Barney Saltzberg, which is an awesome read about turning mistakes into opportunities to make something beautiful. Another book is ‘Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad‘ in which Ladybug Girl hurts a friend and learns how to make it right. Here’s another list of recommended books for littles.
- Admitting when I make a mistake: As “bigs” we are the best role models for our littles. Littles watch and follow our every move, even how we handle our own mistakes. Periodically, I’ll explicitly tell my girls when I made a mistake, outright expressing my vulnerabilities, and what I learned in the process. If I was wrong in how I handled a parenting moment, I apologize to them, reminding them that Mommy is also human.
- Noticing how I respond to accidents: As parents we have all had moments when our child spills something or has an accident. Somehow these incidents occur during the most inopportune times. How we respond as parents during accidents shapes how our children view mistakes. Bringing mindfulness into these moments, taking a pause and a breath, can help us respond vs. react.
- Praising the learning: Carol Dweck, has said, “One thing I’ve learned is that kids are exquisitely attuned to the real message, and the real message is, ‘Be smart.’ It’s not, ‘We love it when you struggle, or when you learn and make mistakes.’” She recommends that as parents we should praise the active learning process. When kids are making the effort to learn, even as they make mistakes, then praising the effort will motivate them to continue learning.
- Watching for self-deprecating language: It’s important to notice if our littles are using self-deprecating language after making a mistake, putting themselves down. Trying to catch this right away and helping redirect how they speak to themselves is critical. One technique to redirect how we talk to ourselves is to pretend that we are talking to a good friend. Would you talk to a friend in the same way that you are talking to yourself? Many adults, myself included, can probably use this reminder even more than our littles.
- Finding programs to reinforce the message: Our family is a big fan of Camp Galileo because of the “Innovators Mindset” they try to instill in their campers, which includes recognizing “setbacks as opportunities to learn” among the many other awesome things they teach. There’s other programs that are similar to Galileo that can help reinforce the message that learning from mistakes is okay.
At home we do believe mistakes are “groovy” and handling mistakes with self-compassion is even groovier. If we can start teaching our littles this sooner rather than later, then hopefully it helps them be more resilient, more confident and more positive as they wade through the many mistakes they will make in life.