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The Scoop on Oops: Turning Parenting “Mistakes” into Tools for Child Empowerment

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

My son, Colby, making his presence known during a Zoom call with colleagues

Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.

“Our greatest weaknesses are the other side of our strengths” – Melinda French Gates, WorkLife podcast with Adam Grant Season 2, Episode 8

In case you were in the mood to hear yet another work-from-home mortifying moment, I’ve got one for you. Recently, I was providing behavioral consultation to a young client’s parents via telehealth from my home office. Unexpectedly, my preschool-aged son started banging on my door. I asked my clients if I could excuse myself for a moment, but, regrettably, I forgot to mute myself on the videoconferencing app. As I scooped up my son and headed towards the door, he screamed, “Mommy, I don’t love you!!”

Similar to our urge to turn off our cameras during staff meetings when a family member walks within view, there are times when, as a parent, I wish I could block some mistake I’ve made in my response to my children. Unfortunately, even behind closed doors, I tend to feel like there is an audience in my mind of parents, teachers, and professionals wielding scorecards. This audience represents, essentially, the internalized model of parenting standards that we aim for and inevitably fall short of.

Just as we work to accept imperfection in ourselves in our jobs and relationships, there is a lot of advice in the self-help literature to accept imperfection as parents. I would like to expand on this notion to highlight how our mistakes, depending on how we respond to them, can in fact represent powerful teaching tools for our children.

Why Is It Challenging to Tolerate Parenting Mistakes?

There are several reasons why it is difficult to tolerate mistakes in parenting.

For one, it is easy to fall into the all-or-nothing thinking trap of assuming you are a bad parent for making a mistake. Along the same lines, some might assume that they messed up their child for life.

Our vulnerability to this kind of thinking may be due to increased expectations of parenting in the modern world (beyond providing for physical and tangible needs), combined with the at-times unclear benchmarks of meeting children’s social-emotional and enrichment needs. This leads to mind-wracking questions, such as when to enroll children in music classes, whether picking their clothes out for them is limiting their creativity and independence, and if it is OK to let them watch television at 9 pm.

I still remember the regretted choice of trying to get my daughter’s ears pierced when she was 3 years old. How could I have not known that this is something I was supposed to do either when she was an infant or had grown out of kicking and screaming in response to every medical-like procedure?

The second reason it is challenging to tolerate mistakes in parenting is that such errors might threaten your sense of control and your power differential with your children. You might feel that if you admit you were wrong (and your child was right), then your child will not respect your authority. As I will highlight below, the opposite is true. Your child will likely have more respect for you if you are willing to acknowledge your own blunders.

In addition, there is an ingrained sense of social approval tied to how well one parents. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: Birthing children is a socially desirable behavior because it helps ensure the continuation of our species, and raising our progeny to be productive contributors to society reflects well on us personally.

Our tendency to relate parenting with social approval makes us vulnerable to comparing ourselves with other parents. On one hand, this could be healthy if it means we are sharing ideas as a community, such as suggestions for how to get our kids to eat healthy, do their homework, and be more cooperative with a bedtime routine. However, social comparison could lead to unhealthy judgments, either in feeling badly about ourselves or looking down on other parents.

I often feel that being labeled a “Bad Parent” is the scarlett letter of our generation, and this relates to another reason it is tough to tolerate parenting mistakes: Your role as a parent is often a core part of your identity. One’s sense of how good a person they are might be tied to how well they parent.

Why Is It Important to Tolerate Parenting Mistakes?

Before we can explore why it is important to be able to tolerate mistakes in parenting, I want to clarify what is meant by the word, “tolerate.” By tolerate, we mean accept that the mistake was a mistake. The word “tolerate” by no means implies that one should be complacent about their mistakes or unwilling to change. At the same time, denying or ignoring mistakes will also stymie learning and personal growth. For example, we needed to accept mistakes in math class in order to learn algebra, and the more we accepted mistakes in any subject, the more we excelled in it. Parenting is no different in this regard.

How Can Tolerating Parenting Mistakes Benefit a Child’s Emotional Well-Being?

The parenting world is governed by frequently fluctuating variables, such as a child’s stage of development and temperament. Therefore, “right versus wrong,” and “better versus worse” are sometimes unhelpful terms.

When we consider that we might have made a mistake in a parenting behavior, we might want to instead ask ourselves, “Was there a more effective way that that situation could have been handled?” “Is there a more enriching way to meet my child’s needs?” or “What might I/my child need to learn from situations like this one?” These questions move the child’s personal growth and development to the forefront as opposed to scrutinizing a “score card.”

In addition, telling your child you made a mistake is beneficial because: 1. You are modeling that it is OK to make mistakes; 2. You are demonstrating that you are invested in being the best you can be for your child (which increases their sense of worth); and 3. You hone your child’s flexible mind set by showing that we can reflect on our past behavior and try to “shift course” with future actions.

Finally, it is possible to gain children’s respect by apologizing to them.

Take for instance a case in which I yell at my daughter for not brushing her teeth. I can apologize for yelling while emphasizing that she still needs to brush her teeth.

As with everything in life, acknowledging mistakes is best balanced with allowing minor imperfections to roll off our backs. Over-apologizing can unintentionally turn kids off from the open-mindedness we want them to have about being OK with mistakes. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Am I acting out of personal insecurity, or with the mindset of nurturing the relationship my child and I have with each other?” If the honest answer is more of the former, this simply indicates it is time to take a breath of fresh air and if possible, step out of the room for a minute or two for an emotional reset.

In summary, do the best you can, but don’t beat yourself up too much for parenting mistakes, because your response to them could turn out to be among your greatest strengths as a parent.

And last but not least, it does not hurt to have faith in your child’s resilience. In fact, on the day I wrote this post, my daughter asked me a question that redeemed me from the past 4 years of one source of parenting guilt: She asked me if she could please get her ears pierced, as soon as possible.

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