Turning Mistakes Into Life Lessons
Many of us spend a lot of energy trying not to make any mistakes, trying to hide the mistakes we did make, or feeling guilty about past mistakes. The problem is that it is impossible for anyone to live without making errors, and our children are watching us closely to learn how to deal with our missteps when they do occur. You don’t fool anyone when you try to hide your error – it’s obvious, even to your teen. Feeling guilty about your blunder does nothing but create stress and prevent you from moving forward to solve the problem.
Don’t you want a teen who is humble enough to admit when they are wrong, ask forgiveness, and move on to try to do a better job next time? Well, guess what – the only way they can develop into that kind of person is if you model it for them.
There are two kinds of mistakes that we will address here. First is the ordinary mistake – the one that your teen sees, but that doesn’t actually affect them directly. For example, perhaps you were busy one day and left the stove burner on when you weren’t using it until you smelled that peculiar burnt odor permeating the house. The second kind of mistake is when you make a bad parenting decision. That one is harder because it actually hurts your teen. For example, perhaps your teen breaks curfew one night, and when they arrive home 30 minutes late, you are so angry and scared that you ground them for a year. Let’s look at how parents can model appropriate ways to handle these mistakes.
How to turn your ordinary mistake into a useful lesson
1. Admit it. The first step we should take when we make a mistake is to be honest and acknowledge when we have made an error. Believe it or not, this will be a relief to your children! Most kids feel like they make numerous mistakes and everyone is pointing them out. To watch someone else go through the process will help them understand that mistakes are not the end of the world, and it will allow them to observe how someone should handle mistakes in a mature way.
2. Make amends. This is the opportunity to demonstrate that, although it is normal and inevitable for each of us to make missteps, it is also our responsibility to clean up our mess. After you have admitted your mistake, show your kids how you plan to fix your error. This ingrains responsibility in your child.
3. Learn lessons. Mistakes are a chance to learn improved ways of doing things. Regardless of whether the teen or the parent has made the mistake, it’s important to ask the question aloud, “If you had it to do over, what would you do differently?” If the parent has made the mistake, think aloud (so that your teen can observe your rationale) about how you can improve in the future and get advice from others. Once you settle on something, consider it an action plan, in a way: “From now on, when I face this type of situation, I will try this type of solution.” Watching this process will allow your teen to see a mature adult think through a problem so that they can mimic you later when they make their own mistakes.
How to handle a bad parenting mistake
1. Apologize. Some parents feel that they should not apologize to their children because it may ruin their authority. Unfortunately, refusing to apologize models bad behavior for your soon-to-be-adult. You are, in effect, telling your teen that mistakes are shameful and it’s better to keep your pride than to fix the problem. Apologizing when you make a mistake that affects your teen is taking those first two steps of admitting your mistake and making amends for it. Additionally, making apologies to your children has some very positive benefits:
- Demonstrates positive qualities. When you see someone demonstrate humility, remorse and a genuine desire to repent for a wrong they committed, what do you think? Do you think they are weak or foolish, or do you feel respect for the way they have taken responsibility for what they have done? Older children will develop more respect for parents who are able to admit their mistakes. Although they will likely not say it, teens will recognize the strength it takes to admit the error, as well as the resilience it takes to learn from the mistake.
- Models positive behavior. Research consistently shows that children, including teens, learn by mimicking actions of the important people in their life. If you never apologize, your teen may never learn the importance of expressing regret. If you want your teen to admit their mistakes and tell others they are sorry, then you must apologize – to your teen when warranted and also in other areas of your life.
- Creates healing and develops trust. Children, and especially teens, are incredibly intuitive and can easily tell the difference between a quick, superficial sorry and a genuine, heartfelt apology. But when you truly mean it, an apology to a child heals their hurt feelings (from the mistake) and helps to develop trust. For example, if you break a promise to your teen but don’t sincerely apologize, then how can your teen trust you? If you show no regret, your teen may assume you will break your next promise, too.
2. Learn lessons. With no “parenting manual” available, parents are left to do the best they can. Parenting is not a direct science. There are no specific steps that will always produce a certain result. So, parents must learn how to best raise their teens through trial and error. Notice the error part… that’s where the learning comes in. When you lose your temper with your teen or you make a bad parenting decision, reflect on what happened, why it happened, and how you can handle it differently in the future. For example, many challenging parenting moments come when you have a knee-jerk reaction to something unexpected or you feel pushed to make a quick decision. These hasty responses are often the ones we regret. If you have made this mistake, then consider how you can handle this issue differently. When your teen has made you really angry, you might try saying, “You’re grounded. I will let you know tomorrow the terms of your punishment.” This does two things – it lets your teen know right away they are in the wrong, but it also gives you time to think through, and get advice on, an appropriate punishment that you will not later regret.
When you make mistakes, admit you’ve made an error, a bad judgment, or a poor decision. Apologize to anyone you may have hurt, including your child and yourself. Forgive yourself both for having made the mistake and for the consequences it brought. When you apologize and receive forgiveness, you model a vital life skill for your teen, and, perhaps even more important, you move from an angry, stuck situation to a more hopeful place. Reflect on what you learned through the experience. Open your mind to the possibility that your mistake may actually have benefited you in unexpected ways, perhaps with an opportunity to try something differently. Make a plan to try not to repeat that mistake in the future. If you follow these steps, your life will feel more peaceful and you will be modeling appropriate behavior for your teen.