September 20, 2023
Mistakes and Mattering
By Dr Kathy Weston
What does it feel like to make a mistake? To underdeliver? To make an error when normally we get it ‘right’? To produce something that is not quite as good as we had hoped? When we fall short of our own standards or expectations for ourselves, it can feel really tough. We can beat ourselves up mentally and find it hard to let go, forgive ourselves, pick ourselves up or keep moving forward. And, that’s just the adults.
What I am describing is a sort of perfectionism and refusal to be kind to ourselves in the aftermath of not doing as well as we might have hoped. It can feel embarrassing and make us want to run and hide in a corner. Everyone has experienced heart-stopping moments when we realise something has gone wrong and we have made a mistake or an error of judgement. In my own life, I remember standing in front of a large crowd and realising ten minutes into my presentation that the ‘draft’ was on show, rather than the final PowerPoint. I recall sending a personal email to the wrong person by mistake with damaging consequences. I recall forgetting lines in school plays, freezing in competitions on stage and messing up my 11+. The thing is, mistakes loom large in our brains.
For some reason, we seem programmed to remember our errors, rather than our successes or moments of extraordinary resilience. We struggle to forgive the person in those stories and choose instead to berate them and remind them again and again of their incompetence. Mistakes can stick like knots in the brain and leave little scars. Unkind words that we might hear about our mistakes or lapses in judgement can loom even longer and harder. I recall speaking to a teacher who struggled to forget the one unkind email from an angry parent at the end of the school year in the sea of compliments and thank you cards. Our desire to do a good job is commendable but also holds us to account in impossible ways. If adults struggle to forgive themselves and move on from mistakes, what hope do children have? And why does it matter?
We have all made mistakes, but what did we learn from them? Mistakes are part of learning and also lead to innovation, improvement and betterment. Without them, we may never progress or move forward. Without them, we could and would never try harder, focus more, stretch or challenge ourselves.
Mistakes are normal. Everyone in the world has experience of making them and is familiar with the feelings that can accompany them. So, what’s the first message to consider bringing into family life? We are all in the same boat and mistakes make us human. Normalise mistakes as part of learning. It is normal to struggle as we learn and it is normal not to get things right the first time. It is normal to make errors and it is normal to need to ask questions. It is normal to feel scared, worried, overwhelmed, frightened or anxious about the mistakes that we can make, but self-compassion provides an antidote. I am always astonished by how good it can feel, even as an adult, to hear that others, perhaps people we consider to be ‘perfect’, have messed up too, or haven’t got something right the first time.
Two of the most eminent clinicians in England in the field of mental health once told me how they failed their A levels and received such low grades that they quickly had to move to plan B, resit and reset, only to feel spurred on to academic glory. It is how we respond to the mistake that matters. Herein lies an opportunity to teach our children mottoes and mantras that become their self-talk over time. Little mottoes such as, “We will get there!”, “We don’t know it yet!”, “Onwards and upwards”, “It takes time to learn” or, “Practice helps us improve”, are the kinds of sentence starters to move young brains into a more resilient gear and a more compassionate one.
How can we be kinder to ourselves when we make mistakes? This is a serious and important question to ask in family life. Let’s consider what we choose to model. If we choose to stomp around the house using swear words to describe ourselves because we forgot to do something or didn’t get something at work quite right, expect our children to follow suit one day. If we model self-criticism, rather than self-improvement, it can become the default for our own offspring. How we refer to ourselves in front of our children matters. Perhaps mottoes and mantras can also involve sentences that accept error: “Oops, never mind, onwards and upwards!”, “Oh dear, well we will know for next time” or, “I got that wrong but everybody makes mistakes”.
Now comes the biggest challenge of all, managing our reactions when our children make a mistake, struggle to get something right, can’t understand, freeze on stage, perform poorly in the match or fail to reach our mental standards on their scorecard. What face will we reveal to them in those moments? What will we teach them that we value? What matters most at this moment? The answer is arguably keeping their anxiety to a minimum and using the experience as what is often termed a ‘teachable moment’.
The relief in children’s faces when they realise we aren’t cross with them because they ‘messed up’ tells us all that we need to know. They generally want to please and impress us, and failing to do that can feel difficult. However, they are also very good at picking up on even our hidden disappointment and may feel upset by imagined responses. A good coaching model can help here. If we ‘coach’ our children, it can help us to locate internal templates for conversations in the aftermath of a mistake. How do you feel the match/test/exam) went? What did you feel went well? What could have worked better? What have you learned from this experience that might help next time? I can understand you are disappointed with the score, but let’s think about extracting what went well and considering a strategy for improving in the future.
A coaching chat, rather than a telling-off, means children and teens are less likely to clam up or beat themselves up, and are more likely to retain a modicum of motivation to try again next time. We teach them that we value their effort over their success, perseverance over performance and give them a sense of progression and commitment to improvement that feels good. Believe it or not fessing up to the times in our own childhoods where we didn’t do as well as we had hoped won’t spur your child onto more mistake-making. On the contrary, it’s likely to reduce any anxiety they are feeling about making them. We aren’t perfect and shouldn’t pretend we are.
Children are more likely to make mistakes, simply because they are children. They will make mistakes in learning, friendships, online, offline and continue to do so as they grow and move through adolescence. So, expect mistakes and get ready to help navigate them, so that they end up kinder to themselves as a result!
Perfectionism is undoubtedly on the rise. Researchers, Professor Thomas Curran and Professor Andrew Hill, report a striking increase over time in the level of unrealistic expectations placed on young adults by society and carers. As they state, the problem resides in the potential gap between what a child can do and what a parent or society expects of them.
It is natural that parents that feel aspirational for their children and want them to do their best, but when nudging morphs into pushing it can leave children demotivated and any love of learning may quickly evaporate. Children are programmed to respond to parental love and praise. Parental disappointment can feel gut-wrenching and an inability to admit to academic struggles can leave children incredibly vulnerable. As we enter the admissions season for many senior schools, where children may encounter tough tests and interviews with strangers, let’s ensure that our parenting focuses on making our children feel loved and valued regardless of their results and scores, and that they are praised for their attitude rather than their performance.
What are we trying to avoid here? We don’t want our children to internalise high expectations as a measure of self-worth and of parental love. We don’t want them to be afraid to tell us their score for dread of the look on our faces and the tangible disappointment that hangs in the air. We don’t want children who begin to feel incompetent, unworthy or even hopeless. It may seem like an obvious point, but our children are more than their exam score; each with their own individual traits and characteristics, aspirations, hopes and interests. Each grows and develops at their own pace over time. They are rich in potential and that potential needs to be carefully nurtured rather than eradicated through impossible expectation or pressure.
Exams are not the enemy per se. Indeed, exams provide an equitable way in which to measure learning and progress for students all over the world. What really makes the difference is how parents nurture children through these academic hoops and how they talk and communicate about them. Instead of being described as ‘the be all and end all’, exams can be reframed as part of a process to learn more about what a child is capable of, things that provide fantastic opportunities to show off knowledge and relish challenges. It can be helpful for children to know that admissions departments look beyond exam results and take into account their character, perspective and potential for learning too.
When it comes to exam prep, pace matters, as does staying organised and calm within family life. Embedding learning and revision into family life in gentle and fun ways is preferable to intense early morning revision sessions before school! Focus on family talk and on developing your child’s thinking. Focus on giving them a voice in family life by welcoming and considering their views. Focus on stability, consistency, routine, a gentle insistence on a good night’s sleep and a breakfast that sets them up for the day. In addition to helping children feel anchored in love and consistency, they also need effective revision strategies and ideas for coping with the process of sitting exams. And that is ok, there is nothing to fear here. These are skills that they will need to use again and again as they encounter challenges in their student and future working lives.
I was recently asked to create parent packs with the exam board ISEB for this purpose. I hope that the four packs we have created help parents to understand the importance of the home learning environment as a foundation for academic achievement, the need to reduce parental anxiety to give children the best chance of thriving and some practical strategies to help children cope with pressure, results, success and inevitable setbacks.
In the meantime, for all parents, if we focus on helping our children feel like they matter, we just can’t go wrong. In his book, The Psychology of Mattering, Gordon Flett notes seven ingredients to feeling like one matters: attention (feeling like you are noticed), importance (feeling that you are significant), dependence (feeling that you matter because others depend on you), ego extension (recognising someone is emotionally invested in you and cares what happens to you), noted absence (feeling like you are missed) and appreciation (feeling like you and your actions are valued and individuation (being made to feel unique, special and known for your true self).
Don’t be afraid to read out and discuss these attributes in family life. Can we each reflect on the steps we can take to help our family members feel like they matter? Can we find ways to articulate that others matter to us? By leaning in, we can actually give our children a much-needed reminder that our love for them is unconditional and in this way set them up psychologically to face whatever comes their way. After all, when you feel heard, seen and valued, you feel unstoppable.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you are interested in finding out more about mistakes and mattering, join us for a live webinar in December, where I'll be talking about the importance of normalising mistakes in family life to reduce academic anxiety and allow children an optimal chance of doing well academically.
Parents in Tooled Up schools and organisations can learn more about normalising mistakes in family life by reading our article. For younger children, we also have a great list of books that can help to reduce anxieties around mistake-making and an activity to help banish negative self-talk. If you hear children of any age being unkind to themselves, try our tips to help. To learn more about the perils of perfectionism, tune into our interviews with Professor Thomas Curran (or get a copy of his new book) and Rob Lightfoot from NACE (National Association for Able Children in Education). Our webinar with Liz Keable also provides numerous strategies for helping children to think about their learning, develop metacognitive skills, embrace challenges and welcome mistakes.
For any children embarking on school admissions exams or interviews, we have a whole range of resources to help. Firstly, why not check out our webinar on balancing academic achievement with good mental health. Then, you might like to watch our video on nudging rather than pushing and share our short video becoming a resilient reviser with your child. Our coping menu can help children to establish strategies that work for them when it comes to managing challenging emotions and situations. All of our resources on preparing for exams and tests, and working through successes and disappointments, can be found here.
Tooled Up subscribers will note that we have recently updated our site. Bear with us as we navigate through some snags and accept our mistakes as we get to grips with a new IT platform system for our archive of almost 700 resources.