Helping Kids Dare to Make Mistakes!

Helping Kids Dare to Make Mistakes!

We all make mistakes. Having an accident, making a not-so-sensible choice, answering a test question wrong-these are things that WILL happen to all of us. And, as we have been talking about in the last few weeks, sometimes these mistakes can lead to great discoveries about ourselves and others. Mistakes can be opportunities.

But not everyone feels that way. Some kids get extremely fearful and anxious when they think that they might make a mistake. They will go so far out of their way to avoid making a mistake or being wrong that they will refuse to try new things or speak up or just be silly sometimes. And that is no way to be a kid!

I have two kids who have been like that from time to time throughout their lives.  They were afraid of making mistakes and that worry got in their way and either made them so anxious that they made mistakes anyway or prevented them from having fun.

So what do you do with a child who is afraid to make a mistake? I want to share two things that worked really well for me and my kids.

Modeling making mistakes. I can be a pretty cautious person, too, and I realize that that has held me back from some adventures in life. So with my kids, I wanted to show them that it is okay (and sometimes fun) to make mistakes. That meant that I have had to actively be okay with mistakes. When I mess up, I not only point it out but I also get over it, right there in front of them. I shrug my shoulders and say “oh well”. I offer a suggestion about what I could do differently the next time. And, sometimes, I even laugh out loud! Because often the things that we didn’t mean to have happen are funny or just so silly that all you can do is laugh. It’s better than crying or getting angry or giving up. And although they have given me funny looks many times, my kids have learned to laugh at their mistakes (and even sometimes themselves), too, and that makes them less afraid to try new things.

The “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Game. This worked really well with my daughter because she tended to think that something horrible would happen if she made a mistake or got something wrong. So if she said that she was afraid of something, like making a mistake on a test, I would ask “What’s the worst thing that would happen if you made a mistake?” She might tell me, “I would fail my test.” So I would say “Ok. What’s the worst thing that would happen if you failed a test?” Then she might say something like “Mrs. Smith would think I was stupid.” Then, I would help her think through how likely that was. So I might say something like “You know, I think that Mrs. Smith knows by now that you are not stupid and I bet she knows that sometimes kids get questions wrong. After all, she wouldn’t have much teaching to do if kids already knew all the right answers, would she? I bet she would think ‘Hmmmmm, my student is having some trouble with that. I should help her.’” Naming her fear and helping her think about how likely it was that the WORST thing would happen, reduced her anxiety and made her more willing to try new things.

 As part of this game, I also helped her think through what she would do if the worst thing DID happen. That might sound like “Ok. Even if you did fail the test and Mrs. Smith thought that you might be having some trouble, what could you do?” And then we could work out a plan like “If I failed the test, I could go talk to Mrs. Smith and ask her for some extra help with this subject. Maybe she could give me some practice questions to bring home.” This is an important step because sometimes kids who are worried about making mistakes believe that everything will stop at the mistake. Helping them think past the mistake and figure out what they could do about it, if it happened, makes them able to see beyond the mistake and understand that it is not an end.  It’s just a bump in the road that they can move past.

These are two ways that I worked with my kids to help them be less anxious about making mistakes. Different things will be effective for different kids. We would love to hear from you about what might have helped YOUR kids be less afraid to make mistakes. Please leave a comment!

Image: © Sakkmesterke |

Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.


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