Commentary: We Need to Give Ourselves and Our Children the Permission to Make Mistakes

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Commentary: We Need to Give Ourselves and Our Children the Permission to Make Mistakes

Growing with your child

By Sue-Anne Wu | 4 September 2020

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” — J.K. Rowling

The best gift we can give our kids

As parents, we want the best for our kids. We move homes to get our children into our ideal primary school. We enroll our children in classes to cultivate their interests, grow their character and build resilience. These are all good. But what if the best gift we can give our kids is the freedom to make mistakes and the ability to learn from them?

Research today tells us failures and mistakes should be viewed as opportunities for growth and are stepping stones to more successful outcomes. Amazon’s culture of embracing failure has helped the company to innovate the best products leading to its global success and skyrocketing share prices.

According to psychologist Dr Carol Dweck, if we can teach our children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort and keep on learning then our children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their confidence. Thus we should welcome mistakes since they help us to grow.

Giving ourselves the permission to make mistakes

How do we respond to our mistakes and our children’s mistakes?

Growing up in a typical Asian family, “face” or how my family and I appeared to others was very important. Mistakes were to be avoided and failure was shameful. I learnt to “die-die” not admit my mistakes and sometimes chose not to try new things because I was afraid to fail.

All too easily, our mistakes and failures are transformed from an action (“I failed” or “I lost my temper at my child”) into an identity (“I am a failure” or “I am a bad parent”). We need to give ourselves the permission to make mistakes in life and in our parenting journey.

If we don’t believe for ourselves that mistakes provide invaluable opportunities for growth, we will not be able to teach our children the same. We can’t give what we don’t have.

Changing our internal narrative

The first step we can take is to change our internal narrative. Do we know ourselves? What types of situations trigger us and how do we respond to difficulties? Do we tend to blame others, avoid challenges altogether, or rationalise our mistakes away?

When we know ourselves, we can better prepare for the next time when a similar situation arises again. I find it helpful to have an alternative to my default self-talk.

For example:

Instead of saying: Try saying:
I am a bad parent. With the right attitude and effort, I can grow to become a better parent.
I can never change. I always shout at the children when I am angry. As I discover what triggers me, I can strategise how to respond in a more ideal manner next time.
I looked stupid when a stranger told my son not to press the lift buttons repeatedly. Hmm... The stranger is right – I should correct my child promptly if he is misbehaving. I can learn from this.

As we reflect on the mistakes we make at work, in our relationships or parenting, we can ask ourselves: What can I learn from this? How would I do it differently next time?

Practising self-compassion

Very often, we are our own harshest critics. We feel guilty for repeating mistakes or not doing enough, and carry the fear that our actions (or lack thereof) will ruin our children’s life.

It is said that to err is human, so why are we so hard on ourselves? Let’s practise self-compassion; let’s learn to treat ourselves with the same kindness and consideration that we would offer a good friend. We need to find ways to nurture ourselves so that we are well-equipped to handle the demands of life.

Psychiatrist Dr Daniel Siegel tells us: “The challenge we all share is to embrace our humanity with humour and patience so that we can in turn relate to our children with openness and kindness. To continually chastise ourselves for our ‘errors’ with our children keeps us involved in our own emotional issues and out of relationship with our children.”

Talking about our mistakes

As we learn to give ourselves permission to fail, we can share our experience with our children. If you’ve made a mistake with your child, be sure to apologise for it and share how you would try to do better next time. Who knows – your child might surprise you by reminding you of your own strategies the next time you encounter the same problem.

Make conversations over mistakes a regular affair. At dinnertime, get everyone to take turns sharing about a mistake they’ve made. Maybe dramatise a mistake that ended up becoming a success or describe with relish things you’re struggling with and making progress on. We can also share our negative feelings – like embarrassment or discouragement, and how we coped with them.

In the process, we not only normalise failure, but also give our children a glimpse of the difficult emotions that come alongside it.

“Are we there yet?”

We are on a continuing journey of parenting and learning – and we are definitely going to make mistakes. None of us are “born” parents and unfortunately, children don’t come with an instruction manual.

We’re going to have to grow with our children through each stage of their development. So hang in there mama and papa, know that you’re doing the best you can. We can keep learning and growing together.

© 2020 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

Sue-Anne Wu is a nature seeker and avid reader. She manages her 5 rambunctious boys (aged 10 months, 4, 7, 9 and 39) with a healthy dose of optimism and several shots of coffee.


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