If you ask a girl about making a mistake, she will tell you, almost verbatim: “It is good to make mistakes because we learn from making mistakes.”  That is what she has always been told and we, as adults, pat ourselves on the back that she can tell us the value of making a mistake. However, ask a girl what it FEELS like to make a mistake, and you get a very different answer.

Last week, I was visiting a Dynamo Girl class filled with 20 six and seven year olds and it was time for us to create our team agreement.  The agreements are created every semester by the Dynamos with help from their coaches and include things like: “Have fun! Be kind. Keep our bodies and our feelings safe.”  We try to hit all the important expectations for a group of girls learning and being physically active together. If the girls don’t come up with all the greatest hits themselves, the coaches will typically add the last few, things like: “No whispering.  Have respect for whomever is talking. Ask permission to touch someone.” At the end of the process, I always like to add the kicker: “Make mistakes.” Usually the girls go a little quiet when I say that and look at me like I landed from Mars. So I typically ask them: “Do you know why I put ‘Make Mistakes’ on our team agreement?” A bunch of girls will quickly respond: “Because mistakes are good.  We learn from making mistakes.”

I have been running Dynamo Girl for several years and I am embarrassed to say that last week was the first time I thought to ask back to them: “But what does it FEEL like to make a mistake?”  I was not prepared for the responses:

“I want to disappear when I make a mistake.”

“I want to disguise myself and turn into another person when I make a mistake.”

“I want to run away when I make a mistake.”

HOLY SHIT.  They sound like every grown woman I know, even though, unlike women my age, they have been told since birth that making mistakes is good.  These are six and seven year old girls and they feel the same shame I feel when I make a mistake. They have been reminded ad nauseum that you learn from making mistakes, and still, they want to “disappear,” they want to “turn into another person,” they want to “run away.”  How do you handle a seven year old (or twelve year old or eighteen year old) who wants to disappear when she makes a mistake?

Here are 7 steps to creating a mistake-friendly home:

  1. Empathize with the feeling of wanting to: disappear, disguise, run away. Don’t try to explain away what she expresses – that won’t help anyone, it will just minimize her feelings.
  2. Admit that sometimes you feel that way too.  I feel shame from making mistakes basically all the time and I try to own that.
  3. Play the “what’s the worst that can happen” game with her to learn what is driving her fear of mistakes: I will get punished.  My friends won’t like me. My teachers will shout at me. This exercise provides fascinating insights into where your kid’s head is at.
  4. Help move from “Worst Case Scenario” to “Probable Consequences” of the mistake: having to finish the forgotten homework during recess, a disappointed expression from a teacher, an annoyed parent at the dinner table.  This usually works really well particularly if you role play with your kid on how to admit making the mistake so she gets some practice and realizes saying it out loud is not so awful.
  5. Offer your own real life examples of when you’ve messed up and what the real consequences were.  By doing this you show her that it was hard to admit to the mistake, but you are still standing, still loved, still have a job..  My kids LOVE this one mostly because it shows me in my most human light.
  6. Help her recognize (à la Lisa Damour) that the shame/embarrassment/fear associated with making a mistake is only her first reaction.  Give her the opportunity to sit with that feeling and see whether her subsequent reactions to the mistake don’t feel quite as bad. I’m trying really hard at this one with myself and my kids!
  7. Be aware of your own behaviors in front of your daughter and observe whether you’ve created a mistake-friendly culture.  Are you coming down hard on her for small infractions? I do.  Are you praising her unhealthy, perfectionist tendencies?  I sometimes do that.  Are you modeling mistake making at home and admitting to your own mistakes?  I’ve actually gotten really good at that.

The bad news in all of this is that girls as young as six are still really afraid of making mistakes.  The good news is that we are having more and more constructive conversations with girls about their fear of making mistakes.  We have reached the stage where girls know that, at least in theory, making mistakes is an important way to learn. However, they have not yet internalized that message.  Our job is to help them actually believe what they’ve been told by helping girls build the muscle of making mistakes, moving past it in a healthy way and living to tell the tale.  That muscle can only be built if girls are allowed to make mistakes (not wrapped in bubble wrap and protected from them) and feel that once they have made those mistakes they are still supported by the adults around them.

If you have any other successful strategies or ideas, please let me know.  I myself am still a work in progress when it comes to living with my mistakes, so I could use all the help I can get!

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