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Adolescence and the Positive Power of Mistakes

As the poet said, "to err is human," and in adolescence it is necessarily so.

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Parents of adolescents, witnessing the teenager’s mix of progress with regress, can often feel frustrated and fatigued by this halting trial and error journey of growing up.

“When will you just do things right for a change?” “When will you ever learn?” “When will you stop making mistakes?”

In response to this last question, I would like to suggest the best answer is: “hopefully never.” Mistake-based-education is simply part of everybody’s learning curve all their life. Responsibly profiting from the unwise choice/unhappy consequence connection, we all have a chance to maybe do something differently the next time, or simply not to do it again.

How parents treat mistakes is educationally important once an eager, curiosity-seeking child becomes a more self-consciously learning adolescent. Consider the kindergarten child who is frantically waving both hands to get to answer a question, calling out “Me! Me! Me!” Now fast forward to early middle school and you find the same student truly dreading being called upon and silently praying, “Please, please don’t let it be me!” What’s going on? The innocent joys of gathering knowledge have now become complicated by the risks of learning that are self-consciously setting in.

Consider five possible risks of classroom learning for many adolescents. To learn, you may have to:

Declare ignorance: “I don’t know,”
Make mistakes: “I messed up,”
Feel stupid: “I’m not getting it!”
Look foolish: “This feels embarrassing!”
And get evaluated: “Suppose I fail?”

It often takes more courage to learn for the adolescent than the child.

Now consider the “classroom” that really shapes receptivity to learning: the family home. When parents are continually disapproving, they can make learning unsafe by expressing:

Intolerance of ignorance: “You don’t know that?”
Impatience with mistakes: ‘You got it wrong again!”
Criticism of capacity: “What’s the matter with you?”
Charges of foolishness: “You really look slow!”
Harsh evaluation: “A child could do better than you!”

Contrast these parental responses to adolescent learning with those of safe parents who:

Affirm ignorance: “All learning starts with admitting we don’t know.”
Value mistakes: “Getting it wrong can teach how to get it right.”
Show sensitivity to feeling stupid: “You’re not being slow; you’re learning at your own rate.”
Respect feelings of foolishness: “Letting others see you struggle to learn is brave to do.”
Act supportive in evaluation: “Now you know more than you did before.”

If there is one piece of advice I would offer parents when responding to some aspect of their adolescent’s performance it is: Don’t criticize youthful mistakes. You will further injure the young person at a time of vulnerability, and you may discourage some willingness to risk ongoing learning in the process.

In an earlier book, The Connected Father (2007) I wrote down what seemed to me some basic principles of mistake-based-education. They went like this.

"Everybody makes mistakes.

A mistake is a choice people would make differently if they could do it over again.

People don’t make mistakes because they want to; they make mistakes because they didn’t know any better or didn’t think more clearly at the time.

All mistakes are costly, but they can be worth the expense if they are used to inform and instruct. A bad mistake can teach a good lesson.

Making a mistake is not a failing; not learning from a mistake is a failing.

It is ignorant to make a mistake, but it is stupid to repeat a mistake.

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 stop acting stupid and wise up.

The smartest people are not those who never make a mistake, but those who use mistakes to make better choices the next time around.

The stupidest people are those who are unable or unwilling to admit mistakes."

I believe it works best when parents can cast mistake-making in a human light. For example, they can talk about how everybody, no matter their age, remains forever a student in The Great School of Life.

“When we’re growing up, grown up, and even when we’re growing old, we never get out of the classroom. In The Great School of Life, you and I will always just be students.

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 get it all right,
We’ll all do some foolish things,
And neither one of us will ever get all A’s.”

Then, if they haven’t already done so, parents can even humanize mistake-making by telling about a few poor choices they made when they were growing up, and what they learned the hard way from facing the consequences.

Finally, the best parental response to an adolescent mistake I ever heard was many years ago in counseling with a dad and his discouraged 19-year-old son who had once again chosen his way into difficulty and was beating up on himself for “not having better sense.” So the dad leans forward and says something that instead of slumping the young man further over in discouragement, straightens him up with hope. “Son,” the dad says. “As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not making and learning from mistakes, that just means you’re not trying hard enough.”

For more about parenting a teenager, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2013.). Information at:

Next week’s entry: "Parenting Adolescents and Conflicts between Constancy and Change."

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