To Err is Human: 5 Ways Your Mistakes Can Make You a Better Parent

This image shows a guy with a pan of smoking cookies.Please tell me something like this has happened at your house too.  Two weeks ago my husband Todd was sick with a flu that snuck by the flu shot mix this year.  He felt terrible for over a week, poor thing.  One weekend day I’d taken our oldest to an activity while Todd stayed home with the other two kids and directions to watch a DVD with them or rest.

I returned home to discover that Todd had done a few other things besides resting.  First he began cooking lentils in preparation for Snobby Joes – we’ve been trying to do more Meatless Mondays.  Then the kids started acting up and driving him crazy so Todd decided to take them to the library. This would have been fine as long as he turned off the stove first.  Being sick, he didn’t.

Thus a while later, Todd and the kids returned home to a can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face, smoke-filled house.  Stephen and I arrived soon after.

Once our initial clean-up and air-out phase was complete, I took a walk to get some fresh air and ponder our next steps in dealing with our sweet little home which now smelled like a saloon.  As I walked, it also occurred to me that what we currently had was a teachable moment.  We could use this mistake to support various life lessons we’d been attempting to impart to our children.  A screw-up like this might as well be good for something.

Five Ways to Turn a Parental Mistake into a Useful Lesson

1.   Admit it.  Show your kids that you too make mistakes.  Be honest about your mistakes in the same way you always tell them to be honest about theirs.  Acknowledge your frustration and anger.  This sets the stage for your home to be a place where people share the bad as well as the good, and help each other fix mistakes.  We could never have hidden such an odorific debacle as this one from our kids – maybe this was a good thing.

2.  Make amends.  Teach the lesson that we can’t stop mistakes from happening because we’re all human, but we can always try to make things better after we’ve made a mistake.  Show your kids how you are making amends for your goof and ask them for additional suggestions.  Let them help you fix things if they wish, in order to support the message that family members help each other when something goes wrong.  The next day our kids helped wash down the walls of our smoky home.

3.  Teach children how to learn from mistakes.  Common parenting advice is that we should let kids make mistakes so they’ll learn important life lessons and won’t repeat the same actions.  While I generally agree with this sentiment, I have rarely seen it play out so smoothly with my 3 kids.  If left to their own devices, my kids would need to make the same mistake 4 or 5 times before truly learning “the lesson.”  Therefore, I try to support their learning when I can with questions such as, “If you had it to do over, what would you do differently?”

When we parents make a mistake, we can let our kids in on our thinking process.  In our recent screw-up, for example, we were reminded we’d been meaning to buy a pressure cooker.  This incident was a sign that we should do this now.  We explained to the kids that with a pressure cooker, beans and lentils don’t need to cook for as long and people are less likely to forget the stove is on.  We also talked to our kids about other changes we could make as a family to prevent this from happening again.  They suggested helping us double check that everything was turned off before we leave the house.  Hopefully we’re not flipping on an OCD switch in anyone, but clearly Todd and I could use the help.

4.  File the mistake away to be used again when needed.  Last week our 3rd grader Annie decided to wait until Thursday afternoon to do all her weekly spelling homework.  It was due on Friday.  (I know what you’re thinking.)  When Annie got home after school on Thursday, she realized she’d left her spelling workbook at school.  A steep and dark downward spiral ensued, swallowing all hope and brightness in its path.

I made an initial wrong move by saying to Annie, “Let’s just email your teacher and ask her if you can do your spelling homework over the weekend.”  I’m still not completely sure why this suggestion led to even deeper despair, but I think it had something to do with problem-solving before Annie was ready.  So I quickly back-tracked and simply described what I assumed Annie was feeling – hopelessness.  After this I told her about times I’d felt the same way after making a mistake.  Now I seemed to have her attention.  I pulled out an example of one of my bigger screw-ups from my mind’s “mistakes folder.”

“Annie, remember when I took you to Kaya’s birthday party at 2:00 when it actually had started at 10:00?”  (I’d already made that one up to her in other ways, so she wasn’t still angry about it.)  “That was a big mistake, and I felt really frustrated when it happened.”

Something about sharing my own mistakes with my kids always moves them through the upset phase a little faster.

5.  If  the mistake you made was a parenting mistake, apologize to your child.  So many challenging parenting moments come when you feel pushed into a corner needing to make a quick decision, or something unexpected occurs and you simply react to it.  These hasty responses are often the ones we regret.  But there’s a way past this.

Acknowledge you made a mistake and apologize to your child.  “Daniel, when I banned you from the Wii for a month after you came home late from school, I reacted too strongly.  I’m sorry.  I was still scared about not knowing where you were when I said that, and now I think it was extreme.  I’ve changed my mind.  You’re grounded from the Wii for a week instead of a month.”

When we apologize to our kids, we model this vital life skill for them, an ability which helps us move from a stuck, angry place to a more hopeful position.  Knowing that we parents can always apologize to our kids if we screw up, and in doing so we are teaching them a useful lesson, has helped me become a more relaxed parent.

My more relaxed stance makes everyone in our family happy because as the saying goes, “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”  Whether from our massive house-cleaning effort, or just the passage of time, our home finally no longer smells like the corner bar.   And Mama’s happier.


More ideas along these lines?  Leave a comment below!


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