How to Move Past Mistakes

Eight simple parenting rules for motivating a vulnerable child with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD).

Helping Your Child Move Past Mistakes ADDitude Magazine

Of course there are going to be mistakes. That’s what erasers are for.


Who Let the Dogs Out?

Twelve-year-old Jason feels terrible. He forgot to close the door tightly when he left home this morning, and the dogs got out and dug up the backyard. When Jason’s mother got home, she put the dogs back in the house and sat down with Jason for a pep talk.

Jason started to cry, saying that he deserved to suffer for his mistake. His mom reassured him with several of the DELICATE rules, starting with A. “You left the door open by accident, honey. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone has accidents.” She went on to assure Jason that the holes in the grass were temporary (T) and they could easily be filled in. She explained how analyzing what happened could point the way to learning a new routine (L), which would help him make sure to close the door next time.

Finally, she posted on the refrigerator a sign that spelled out all eight ways to process mistakes, with the word DELICATE written vertically. Now the whole family copes better with their mistakes. The household is less chaotic — and happier.


What’s the key to reaching one’s goals and making a happy, productive life? Motivation. But it’s hard to feel motivated when much of what you try goes awry. Just ask (or observe) a child with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD); distractibility and memory deficits can lead to frequent mistakes at home and at school — and what feels like constant discipline and criticism from parents and teachers.

Some kids buy into the idea that they aren’t capable of much, and give up when faced with even small challenges. Others become so fearful of not doing things right that they don’t even try. Either way, these kids suffer a severe blow to their self-esteem.

Now for the good news: It’s surprisingly easy to “inoculate” your son or daughter against defeatism and low self-esteem. All you have to do is teach your child how to think about the mistakes they make. Use my eight rules (outlined below) at home, and encourage your child’s teachers to use them at school. The rules are known by the acronym DELICATE. (If you have trouble remembering all eight, write them down, and post them prominently in your home.)


Point out to your child when his mistakes are decreasing in magnitude or frequency — and assure him that they are likely to continue to do so. “Look how far you’ve already come,” you might say. “The more you practice, the fewer mistakes you make. Things will get easier.”


Kids are less likely to be discouraged by mistakes if they realize that mistakes are to be expected. Ask your child to name what is at each end of a pencil. Explain that the point is for writing and the eraser is for correcting mistakes. In fact, the inevitability of mistakes is why erasers were invented. Explain, “Of course there are going to be mistakes. That’s what erasers are for.”


The only difference between a stumbling block and a stepping stone is how your child uses it. Make sure your child understands that every mistake, no matter how big or small, can be used as a learning opportunity. “Let’s learn from what just happened,” you might say. “Remember, success means making progress—not being perfect.”


Teach your child to regard a mistake not as a mark of failure, but as an indication that a project remains unfinished: “You’re not done with it yet. We’ll work on it again later. You didn’t run out of talent, you just ran out of time.”

C is for CAUSE

The perfectionist parent believes there is no excuse for mistakes. The realistic parent understands that mistakes are inevitable, and—rather than trying to affix blame — looks for causes to correct. “Let’s see what’s giving you trouble here,” you might say. “Every mistake has a cause.”


Make sure your child knows that mistakes are, by nature, accidents, and that making one does not mean that he is “bad.”


Encourage your child to view each mistake as a temporary setback on the road to success: “You’re just not ready for that activity right now—you’ll do better later.”

E is for EFFORT

Mistakes should be viewed as proof of trying, not as proof of failing to try hard enough. Point out that Michael Jordan missed 63 percent of the baskets he attempted during his basketball career. Babe Ruth struck out more than 1,300 times. And Thomas Edison tried 611 different materials before discovering that tungsten makes the best filament for a light bulb. “The only way you can guarantee avoiding a mistake,” you might say, “is not to try. Thank you for trying.”

By applying these eight concepts to the mistakes your child makes, you’re helping him develop that “I can do it!” self-confidence, free of the specter of perfectionism.


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