Teaching Children the Value of Making Mistakes: A Case Study with Myself

By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series

Teaching Children the Value of Making Mistakes: A Case Study with MyselfPerhaps the most important habit I promote as a therapist and children’s author is healthy coping. Basically this means helping people learn and practice being able to feel and deal with life’s circumstances. One of the more difficult things children, and people in general, have trouble with is dealing with making mistakes.

The day before Thanksgiving this past November, I was forced to deal with my own mistake when I forgot to zip up my computer bag and, as a result, dropped my laptop onto the pavement as I was getting into my van.

As many of us do when we make mistakes, I wanted to get away from the negative experience as soon as possible. “I’m sure my computer is fine,” I told myself and moved on with my day, never even checking the laptop.

The funny thing about trying to avoid thinking about mistakes: The more we try not to think about them, the more they enter our mind. As the evening wore on, a bevy of nagging thoughts circled in my head: “You’ve got to check your computer.” “What happens if the hard drive is broken?” “Did you save all your data?” “You need a computer for work!” “Do you know how much a new computer will cost?” “What’s the matter with you?”

Finally I broke down, plugged in my computer, and learned that yes, I had broken the hard drive. Mistake detected.

Most of us are taught about the importance of learning from our mistakes. In fact, learning from mistakes is a core ability that educators have identified as essential for children’s success. Great thinkers and inventors, such as Einstein and Edison, also have identified making mistakes in their own work as one of the pathways to invention, expression, and learning. As Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

I must admit that, at that moment, I was having trouble figuring out how Edison’s quote applied to my situation—except for the end part about something that won’t work. The thing that wouldn’t work was my computer. I often say to my clients, “You’re doing a better job of hanging on to your oops rather than finding a way to cope with it and move on.” This time it was me hanging on to my oops.

I needed to go back to the two aspects of coping—feeling and dealing.

So I put on my therapist hat and asked myself: “How do you feel about dropping your laptop?”

Answer: “I don’t want to think about it.”

Ah, 12-year-old me had jumped out for a second, trying to protect me. Therapist me tried again: “How do you feel?”

I thought for a second. “I feel ticked off at myself for being stupid and not closing the bag. Ugh!”

“Good job. Now take some time to allow yourself to find where you feel that in your body.”

“Do I have to?”

“Just give it a try.”

I tried to breathe. I walked into my body with my mind, trying to notice where I literally was feeling this mistake. For many of us, it’s not enough to identify a feeling. We must connect it with where we feel it in our bodies. Our bodies often give us important information and avenues to process by grounding us in the moment rather than in the bad feeling.

I sensed right away that this mistake was making my stomach feel terrible. I took a moment to gently breathe into the discomfort in my stomach, knowing, as Robert Frost said, “The best way out is always through.” I sensed my angst, felt it sitting in my stomach. I breathed into it, and slowly imagined the mistake dispersing.

“Okay, great job. What do you want to do about it?”

“Turn back the clock. Make it never happen!”

This is the same sentiment I hear from a lot of my clients, though it usually applies to matters that are much more critical than dropping a laptop. Of course, as we all know, we can’t turn back the clock—but we all can cope.

It would be optimal if all children viewed making mistakes as essential to their personal and academic learning and growth, but we know it’s more complicated than that. Like many habits, kids’ abilities to feel and deal with making mistakes fall on a continuum from chronic underachiever to rigid perfectionist. On one end of the continuum, chronic underachievers are those kids who are too used to and comfortable with making mistakes, resulting in a casual attitude toward their mistakes. On the other end, rigid perfectionists are those kids who find mistakes totally unacceptable and put an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves not to make them. Fortunately, most of our children and students fall somewhere in between the two ends of the continuum—they simply do their best to learn from their mistake and move on.

I know I stand somewhere on the rigid perfectionist side of the continuum. It’s wise to gently assess ourselves, and to help children assess themselves, as to where we stand on the making-mistakes continuum so that we can provide appropriate support and skills. In addition, we need to create environments in our homes, communities, and schools that support the idea that everyone makes mistakes.

Key to MistakeA useful tool for helping kids deal with mistakes is the Key to Mistakes. In the first step, kids detect their mistake, or figure out why they made it. The second step is to correct, or try to fix the mistake. The last step is to reflect, or think about what they learned. And remember: Nobody’s perfect. Click here to download the Key to Mistakes, a free printable worksheet from Zach Makes Mistakes.

Thus far I had done a good job of detecting my mistake, but I still needed to correct and reflect.

“So, what do you want to do about it?”

I have developed a self-mantra for times like this. I tell myself: “I’m not the only person who made a mistake today. And this probably will not be the only mistake I’ll make today. This is going to be okay.”

This type of self-talk helps shift my attitude, so I’m not feeling stuck on one end of the continuum, holding on to the perfectionistic belief that I can never make a mistake—or on the other end, thinking that I always make mistakes so what’s the point.

In addition, I often remind myself, “This too will pass.” For some reason, it always helps me. I often ask my clients to come up with their own self-compassion phrase to help them feel better during emergency mistake situations.

Now what was I going to do about my computer? How could I correct the situation?

I had a discussion with my mistake partner (the friend or family member you can tell your mistake to without threat of shame or ridicule). In my case, my mistake partner is my wife. I told her what had happened. She assured me that everything was going to be okay. (Yes, even adults need to be reassured sometimes. But remember how important it is to reassure children.)

We quickly agreed that I needed to have a computer for work. This mistake had to be corrected. We brainstormed our options. It turns out that there’s this thing that happens the day after Thanksgiving called Black Friday when computers and other goodies go on sale. Wow, I’d never shopped on Black Friday before, but I guess there’s always a first time for everything. I decided to make an outing out of it, bringing along four of my children to experience the crowds, the television camera crews, and the moment when I landed my new touchscreen laptop on sale. We had a rip-roaring good time.

This did not mean that it was easy to correct my mistake. In order to afford a new laptop, I had to spend savings I did not want to spend. However, as I stood in the checkout line amid the noise and commotion, I reflected on how I’d gotten to this point, and I realized that I had learned a valuable lesson. It is a lesson I keep coming back to in my life: Don’t be in such a hurry. Slow down and be mindful of the small things (like zipping up your computer bag). Nobody’s perfect, not even the therapist. Bravo.

bill-mulcahy-webWilliam Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist. He has served as a supervisor at Family Service of Waukesha and as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Center in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues. He has also worked with children with special needs. Currently he works in private practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and is the owner of Kids Cope Now, a program for providing books and tools to help kids in the hospital. Bill lives with his wife and family near Summit, Wisconsin.

Free Spirit books by William Mulcahy:






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2 Responses to Teaching Children the Value of Making Mistakes: A Case Study with Myself

  1. Dianna says:

    Thank you for this insightful activity! I myself am going through some “junk”, and can not fix it on my own…medical issue, and I need to find a way to not be perfect and learn from the mistake of ignoring it. I also plan to use this with my students on repairing relationships after an argument. Win, Win! Thanks good luck with the new computer. DIanna

  2. Ant Man says:

    *thumbs up*

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