Adolescence and mistake-based education.

Much education in adolescence is learning from mistakes.

Posted Jan 20, 2010

There seem to be two major sources of instruction in teenage life. There is before-the-fact education that we call ‘preparation' through which parents inform understanding before decision-making happens. And there is after-the-fact education that we call ‘recovery' through which unwelcome lessons are taught after painful consequences have occurred.

So to prepare their teenage driver, parents say "don't drink and drive," and then explain the dangerous reasons why. When preparation fails to convey, however, then recovery from impetuous action may be required to convince. An arrest for DWI can be a life changing event. After-the-fact education is usually more costly than what is provided before.

In childhood, the age of dependence, a conscientious parent is often the best teacher. In adolescence, the age of independence, confronting hard consequences is often the best teacher.

Unhappily, sometimes parents who wish to protect their teenager from consequences that might discomfort the present or complicate the future will prevent this invaluable instruction. They will intervene to get him out of trouble, they will quash consequences, and by doing so an opportunity for education is lost. "He didn't mean to," "She promised never to do it again," "He just wasn't thinking," "She's really a good kid, give her a break." So the charges for DWI are dismissed.

In the long run this kind of parental help can really hurt. Better to support mistake-based education and let the young person encounter the errors of his or her ways.

For example, consider some "reasons not to rescue," some common examples of tough lessons to be learned.

Suppose that from confronting some natural consequences of doing wrong, the adolescent learns to act right.

Suppose that from confronting some natural consequences of forgetting a promise, the adolescent learns to remember commitments.

Suppose that from confronting some natural consequences of breaking a law, the adolescent learns to become more rule abiding.

Suppose that from confronting some natural consequences of escaping work and failing, the adolescent learns to bear down and succeed.

Suppose that from confronting some natural consequences of yielding to peer pressure, the adolescent learns to think and act more independently.

Suppose that from confronting some natural consequences of indulging immediate gratification, the adolescent learns to resist temptation.

Suppose that from confronting some natural consequences of acting carelessly, the adolescent learns to behave more responsibly.

Suppose that from confronting some natural consequences of lying, the adolescent learns to be honest.

To support this after-the-fact instruction, parents not only need to act tough enough to let consequences happen, they need to honor learning in this way. To do so, they can describe to their adolescent Ten Principles of Mistake-based Education.
1)Everybody makes mistakes. They are part of being human because no one acts perfectly correctly all the time.
2)A mistake is a choice people would make differently if they could it do over again.
3)People don't makes mistakes because they want to; they make mistakes because they didn't know any better or didn't think more clearly at the time.
4)All mistakes are costly, but they can be worth the expense if they are used to inform and instruct.
5)Careless mistakes result from not attending and constructive mistakes result from trying something new or difficult. Both kinds of mistakes can teach a good lesson.
6)Making a mistake is not a failing; not learning from a mistake is a failing.
7)It is ignorant to make a mistake; but it is stupid to repeat a mistake.
8)Sometimes people have to repeat the same mistake a number of times when there is something hard they don't want to learn, before they finally stop acting stupid and wise up.
9)The smartest people are not those who never make mistakes, but those who risk making mistakes and use them to make better choices the next time around.
10) The stupidest people are those who are unable or unwilling to admit mistakes because they limit their education.

Explain to your adolescent how learning in life works - when you're growing up, and when you're a grown up too. "In the great school of life," you might say, "you and I will never graduate. We'll always be students because we'll never experience it all. We'll never know it all. We'll never master it all. We'll never pay enough attention. We'll never be careful enough. We'll never remember all we should. We'll never get it all right. We'll all do some foolish things. And neither one of us will get all A's. The best we can do is try our best, keep trying when the going gets hard, learn from the errors of our ways, and credit ourselves for doing what works out well. I may not have made your mistakes growing up, but I sure made a bunch of my own. I still do. And I always will."

One father put it well when his older teenager was in despair over messing up once again. "Son," the man said, "as far as I'm concerned, if you're not making mistakes in life that just means you're not trying hard enough." And with that opinion, or blessing, a father lifted a world of self-recrimination off the shoulders of his beleaguered son.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Delayed adolescence and the only child.