It turns out that children need to make mistakes to learn. For example, every typically developing baby will one day face the challenge of learning to walk. Importantly, walking isn’t something babies learn to do in just one day—it takes days and weeks and months, with a lot of steps and falls along the way. In fact, research has shown that infants between the ages of 12 and 19 months take an average of over 2,000 steps in a single hour of walking, and fall about 17 times during that same time period (Adolph, Cole, Komati, Garciaguirre, Badaly, Lingeman, Chan & Sotsky, 2012). That’s a lot of mistakes, but every fall presents an opportunity to correct those mistakes and learn from them.
So what do we do? We do perhaps the most difficult thing a parent can do—we let our children fail once in a while. By not allowing them to fail, we prevent them from learning how to flexibly deal with problems, and perhaps even how to deal with difficult emotions (Perez-Edgar, 2019).
Babies don’t mind making mistakes, but as they get older, children eventually learn to associate making mistakes with feeling ashamed or embarrassed (Duckwork, 2016; Lewis, Alessandri, & Sullivan, 1992). To avoid promoting these emotions, when children do mess up, gentle discipline coupled with support and feedback can help provide them with the right expectations and support autonomy at the same time (Baumrind, 2013; Grolnick & Pomerantz, 2009; Grusec, 2011; Stifter & Augustine, 2019).
Researchers have even suggested that parents try to model mistake-making for their kids, and some school interventions teach teachers to make grammatical mistakes on purpose and let children catch them (Bodrova & Leong, 2006).
Despite differences in parenting style, what all parents want—helicopter, tiger, and free-range alike—is what’s best for our kids. And sometimes what’s best for promoting their success is letting them experience their own failures.
Adolph, K. E., Cole, W. G., Komati, M., Garciaguirre, J. S., Badaly, D., Lingeman, J. M., ... & Sotsky, R. B. (2012). How do you learn to walk? Thousands of steps and dozens of falls per day. Psychological science, 23(11), 1387-1394.
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Stifter, C., & Augustine, M. (2019). Emotion regulation. In Handbook of Emotional Development (pp. 405-430). Springer, Cham.