Mistakes are valuable

Published by Lori Pickert on November 13, 2008 at 04:20 PM

What happens when we don’t allow and even encourage mistakes?

When we step in and redirect, when we say “that won't work — do this instead”?

When we fail to make it clear that if we aren’t making mistakes, we aren’t learning?

We create a culture that doesn’t tolerate mistakes … and if mistakes aren’t tolerated, then neither are

• hypotheses

• innovation

• creativity

Allowing mistakes — admitting that they are inevitable in a life of making and doing — allows us to build habits of mind like

• flexibility — the willingness to try another approach

• perseverance — the willingness to try again

• collaboration — the willingness to ask others for input

School administrators may dictate to their staff that children should be allowed to make mistakes, but are teachers allowed to make mistakes? Are they allowed to try their own ideas? Are they encouraged to innovate and allowed to fail?

As parents, we may say “it’s okay, it’s okay” from the sidelines, but are we nervously reaching out to give advice or prevent failure? Are we giving the distinct between-the-lines impression that it is NOT okay?

Do we try to hide our own mistakes from our children, or do we cheerfully acknowledge that something didn’t go well and model perseverance?

Do we try to hide our own mistakes from our family, our friends, our community? Our children are watching. What message do we send when we try to put forth a false view of perfection? That it’s better to look perfect than admit fault? That perfection is achievable and it’s better to lie than admit failure?

How can we change things when we accept mistakes and begin to see their value?

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. — Linus Pauling

Fall down seven times, get up eight. — Japanese proverb

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. — Calvin Coolidge


Part 1: Mistakes are good


Comment by Sarah Jackson on November 13, 2008 at 06:46 PM

I think the most difficult thing for me is letting my kids watch me make mistakes, or talking about the big mistakes I've made. I think that letting go of the fear of making mistakes is the most powerful thing we can do in our creative and intellectual lives. What better time to do it than as a child, when there's a safety net beneath you?

Speaking of mistakes, I'm going to go proof about 100 photographs to get the 10 good ones. 10 if I'm lucky.

Comment by Shellyfish on November 13, 2008 at 06:56 PM

Hi Lori,
I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I'm not a homeschooling mum per say, but I just went over to vote for the CCB. I'm a mother to a 3 year old who started school in September (kids start at 3 here in France) but so many of your ideas carry over to the living and learning we do at home together - just wanted to come out of lurkdom to say keep up the great work!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 13, 2008 at 07:50 PM

sarah, i absolutely agree. we've always been self-employed, and hoo boy, we've made a *lot* of mistakes. :^P on the good side, we've turned many of them into very funny stories that have become part of our family lore. but even though i intellectually know that mistakes are unavoidable and a necessary part of achieving, i still have to struggle occasionally with admitting i messed up. and then, of course, there's admitting that you were at fault in some situation with your child -- that's never easy. ;^)

re: photography, all art works this way, i think. in order to fill a sketchbook with sketches you have to stop worrying that each drawing is perfect. in order to get good at drawing people, you have to draw and draw and draw. getting children used to creating an enormous amount of output and then assessing their own work and deciding when *they* are satisfied -- that's part of the hundred languages for us.

10/100 sounds like a really good ratio to me .. i think i'm down around 3/100. :^P

shelly, thank you so much! :^) there are plenty of non-homeschooling friends hanging 'round here. we all share an interest in children and learning; that's all that matters. :^) and hey, if you don't homeschool, i bet i *am* your favorite hs'ing blog. ;^) and here's pretty much everything i remember from two years of french: bonjour! mon stylo est bleu. adieu! ;^)

Comment by Christy Sheffield on November 13, 2008 at 10:30 PM

Thanks so much for that post. Even as an adult I find myself focusing more on my mistakes instead of learning and letting go. Moving on. I know this post was directed towards allowing your children to make mistakes, but I found it inspiring for myself, too.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 13, 2008 at 11:20 PM

christy, i was definitely thinking about our grown-up mistakes .. and how our attitude toward them has to be the same attitude we want to cultivate in our children. :^)

it’s always easier for me to articulate a goal for my sons than it is for me to carry it through in my own life — but you state it perfectly, knowing what i want for them inspires me to do better for myself.

Comment by Dawn on November 14, 2008 at 02:00 AM

Thanks! I have been focusing on holding back on my "corrections"
Just today my daughter was pasting some papers she cut up and then "painting" the paste over them... "I am painting the house I made white"... I was tempted to say... That won't work, the paste will dry clear... on and on but I just let her go then later asked if she would like to get out the paints... Yes, she chose the white paint to paint over the paste! Great learning experience. No mistakes.
Also thanks for the reminder that I need to talk about my mistakes with these little ones... It can be hard sometimes but such a great way to learn.
I am so happy to have this resource. Thank you for your wonderful informative posts!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 14, 2008 at 02:12 AM

thank you, dawn! and how great that you bit your tongue and let her find out for herself what would happen. i mean, it's curious, isn't it? how glue is white but dries clear? so many interesting things to think about...

Comment by Mary Smith on November 14, 2008 at 03:05 AM

I always come away from your posts thinking... I think too much correction can make a child feel unconfident, but no correction makes he or she unaware of where growth can be achieved.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 14, 2008 at 04:33 AM

mary, that’s an interesting observation. i’m trying to say, what happens if we don’t make room for a child to make mistakes? if we jump in to correct before the child has a chance to realize their own error and work to correct it? i think children need that experience in order to develop the attitudes and abilities they’ll need later in life.

i’m not suggesting that we cut our children loose to figure everything out themselves, just that we make enough room for them to experience the entire learning process — discovery, identifying problems, contemplating solutions, trying, failing, getting back up and trying again.

are you imagining a scenario where a child makes a mistake and never realizes a mistake was made?

Comment by Michelle on November 14, 2008 at 08:24 PM

Yet another post I so agree with but...
Any advice on how to deal with the child who won't even attempt something and is afraid of making mistakes. I like to think I've left the kids with plenty of room for that exploration but have one child who is constantly saying... "I can't. Can you do it? I need help!" Sometimes I help, sometimes I tell her she needs to try it first and that she can always start over, sometimes I tell her that it is fine and she just doesn't have to do the activity. She is recently getting better with this but I would still enjoy hearing your perspective.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 14, 2008 at 08:52 PM

hi michelle :^)

i’m curious -- do you think it’s personality/temperament or birth order? i know sometimes younger children feel the unspoken pressure to perform as well as older siblings.

i have run into the same balking at different times from both my younger son (because he wants to immediately produce work as good as his older brother’s) and my older son (who is a perfectionist).

i think open-ended activities with no right or wrong way -- art activities, sure, but also maybe some constructing/building. things that allow creativity but with no “sample” to follow. making a doll house (or action figure building) from empty recyclables/boxes .. building with toothpicks & mini marshmallows, working with clay, making found-object collages (which is basically just gluing down anything you can find ;^) ...

it’s always great to find a younger person for your young person to chaperone, too -- a smaller friend to show the paints and clay, etc. :^)

anyone else have a suggestion?

Comment by Lucia on November 14, 2008 at 08:59 PM

A nice continuation from the previous post. I have been thinking about the idea of "perfection" a lot lately. I liked your point about what our children see in our actions and our presentation of ourselves.

Comment by Michelle on November 14, 2008 at 09:28 PM

She is the middle child (just turned 4). Her older brother is only 19mo older so I do think there is some of that trying to keep up with him thing going on but more of it is just personality.

Funny thing is... she prefers the activities with a set plan... it is the open ended ones that she balks at more. She likes to have coloring pages vs blank pages. She likes to do crafts with Mommy rather than diving into open ended materials. A blank watercolor page in front of her with a tray of paints was just painful this past summer. I think as her fine motor skills improve she will enjoy things like knitting and needle work where she can follow a pattern. It is getting better recently but during the summer/early fall everything was "I Can't."

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 14, 2008 at 09:58 PM

Lucia, thank you. I wrote so much about mistakes that I had to break it up into several parts! ;^)

Michelle, interesting. It can be hard moving from, say, coloring pages to free drawing. Some children just like knowing what they are “supposed” to do. I have definitely experienced working with children used to coloring pages who collapsed like a noodle when faced with a blank piece of paper.

I do think it’s very worthwhile to keep encouraging her in that direction.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 14, 2008 at 10:01 PM

oop -- i meant to share this link to something i wrote earlier about my perfectionist son and (semi-reformed) self ;^)


Comment by Alis on November 15, 2008 at 01:16 AM

Hi Lori,
I just found your blog, because you commented on our blog Boys Almanac. I try to encourage my son to take risks to he can learn outcomes and make good choices on his own. This series of posts on "mistakes" gave me some good insight into parental restraint. Not to mention being eaiser on myself, because after all we are growing together and mistakes happen between us all the time, we just keep iterating.
This is a great resource.
+ Alis

Comment by Leisa on November 15, 2008 at 03:41 PM


I think one important thing for your daughter is to find her interests- is there something that would spark her imagination rather than her wanting to be fed an activity? Many children are so enticed by raw materials- but all of that freedom can also be stifling.

Another thing that you could try is simply modeling for her. For example- drawing is pretty key to project work. So to spark her interest. Let her catch you working on an observational drawing. Don't say anything about it or try to coax her - just let her see. Maybe you are drawing a dinner fork sitting on the table- and there might be an extra paper and pencil there too. She might ignore you- she might sit and watch- she might give it a try. I am constantly drawing alongside my students- and they compliment my drawings- and I compliment theirs. There is an equality and respect. They give me suggestions and I give them suggestions.

Every now and then the "I can't" comes out- and i saddle myself right next to that student with my own paper and try to help- but never on their actual drawing. I'm happy to show them how they could do something- but I won't do it for them. After a few experiences of knowing I will help and not do it for them- they tend to become more independent.

Ok- so now I'm off on a tangent- but I hope I gave you some sort of idea that you can experiment with.

P.s. it's ok if you make a mistake in figuring this out too.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 15, 2008 at 03:53 PM

thank you, alis!

leisa, thank you so much for your insight. :^*

Comment by Melissa Markham on November 15, 2008 at 07:22 PM

I am good at admitting my own mistakes to the children, but I step in too often when I should let them experiment and figure things out on their own.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 15, 2008 at 07:28 PM

it’s such an easy thing to do .. but well worth the effort to stop ourselves, at least part of the time. :^)

Comment by Mary on November 19, 2008 at 12:14 AM

I'm a few days late on this. I read your posts in Google Reader and often forget to go back and check comments. The comments on your posts are always v. v. helpful.

You said in a comment:
"It can be hard moving from, say, coloring pages to free drawing. Some children just like knowing what they are “supposed” to do. I have definitely experienced working with children used to coloring pages who collapsed like a noodle when faced with a blank piece of paper."

I just found this blog this week: http://kidswhothink.blogspot.com/. I was thinking it would be a way to bridge from the "here's a project, complete with detailed instructions" that my son who is currently deschooling is used to to "here's some stuff, ingenuity required".

And for kids who are already used to coming up with ideas on their own, it's still a good opportunity for the collaboration you talk about - seeing how other people work out the same sort of problem.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 19, 2008 at 12:37 AM

hi mary :^)

the Thinik! site is great -- it’s the kind of activities we used to do in our after-school program. and yes, it’s so much better than a follow-directions activity for developing those good habits of mind. :^)

unfortunately, seeing how other people solved the problem after the fact isn’t really the same as collaboration .. it’s community, but not working together to solve a problem, negotiating, compromising, etc., all the good stuff that collaboration includes.

still, it is a great site with great activities; you know i love anything open-ended! :^)

Comment by Mary on November 19, 2008 at 12:41 AM

You're right - I didn't mean collaboration!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 19, 2008 at 01:18 AM

i knew it! ;^)

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