What if you make a mistake?

Sometimes being a parent is heart wrenching! I experienced that reality recently in a major way.

We were working on homework after dinner and everything seemed just fine. Next thing I know, I looked over and my little girl was at her desk crying while she typed on her Chrome book. Sad, heavy, and rolling tears were streaming down her face and it totally caught me off guard! I went over to my 8-year-old and learned she had a 7:00 pm deadline for her homework and had been struck by the realization that she had too many questions left to hit her deadline. It was heart breaking to see her so upset over school work and was a reminder of the challenging times we are experiencing all across the globe. Things are heavy these days!

I sat with her and we worked through it together, finishing at 7:05. Truly, no big deal. I had no doubt her teacher would be just fine with it. But for her, it was huge. 

After her work was submitted her tears intensified and she spoke more about what was so upsetting. She is aware that there is a requirement for kiddos to complete work after their in-person learning each day, and some of that work gets graded. Basically, she developed a complex fear that she would fail to do work, get in trouble and end up in the principal’s office. 

First off, this fear is interesting because she has the most amazing teacher! Kind, patient, and full of love and dedication to the class. She actively teaches them the growth mindset and is committed to educating the whole child. I’m telling you — we won the teacher lottery. On top of that, the principal at her school is full of passion for what she does. Friendly, knowledgeable, loving and supportive — not scary. 

I sat there listening to her fears and anxieties and realized that it is not her teachers or her principal that she is most afraid of. She knows that her teacher loves her. She knows the principal is awesome. That’s not really it. Her real fear is of making a mistake and what that says about her.

Once I realized that the fear and anxiety were more fundamental and rooted in identity I shifted my approach and the conversation. 

What does it mean to make a mistake? 

I asked her what it means to make a mistake. She really didn’t know how to answer it — so I spelled it out for her.

Does making a mistake mean you are unlovable?

Does making a mistake mean you are not smart?

Does making a mistake mean you are a failure?

Does making a mistake mean you are a disappointment?

No. No. No. No.

She knew all of the answers and in unpacking the reality of mistakes she started to realize the story she was telling herself is not true.

Embrace Imperfection

We moved into a discussion about how I want her to be a kid who makes mistakes. I want her to be imperfect. I want her to mess up a little. Perfect is not only impossible but the pursuit of perfect is boring. Let’s live an adventure! Let’s slip and stumble but then get back up better because of the bump in the road. 

I know that left unchecked my 8-year-old who is afraid of making mistakes will grow up to be a 28-year-old who is afraid of making mistakes. Not on my watch. I refuse to stand by idly and let perfectionism and the fear of messing up consume my child.

So what does that mean?

It means I need to check myself. In part, she is in this pursuit of perfectionism due to the DNA she inherited from me (sorry, hun!) but I am also so mindful that the way I speak about myself, react and behave will tell her lessons about what it means to make mistakes. Her emotions about school and expectations have put me on notice and reminded me that I owe it to her to practice what I preach. I’m going to lean into my imperfections and embrace mistakes as an opportunity to learn. 

I’m also going to celebrate her mistakes as growth opportunities. Mistakes mean she is learning, growing, trying, evolving and arriving. I am going to make sure that the next time she messes up I don’t speak to her or frame the conversation in a way that feels condemning or belittling. Together, we will grow!

What about you?

Maybe you were once that 8-year-old and now you’ve grown to a place where fear and mistakes are a dynamic duo of anxiety in your life. It’s not too late to break the cycle and redefine what mistakes mean to you. I’d like to help you get started….

Does making a mistake mean you are unlovable?

Does making a mistake mean you are not smart?

Does making a mistake mean you are a failure?

Does making a mistake mean you are a disappointment?

No. No. No. No.

It is up to you to conceptualize and control the narrative. Determine if you will speak with kindness to yourself or condemnation. Will you unpack the surface level fears to uncover the identity issues that are lurking beneath the surface?

What if you make a mistake — what does it mean? You get to decide.

3 responses to “What if you make a mistake?”

  1. Tom England Avatar
    Tom England

    Thanks Caitlyn for the great message on the dangers of perfection…. commented the perfectionist:). I like the book ‘Permission to Screw Up’ by Kristen Hadeed… good business and life lessons.

    1. Caitlyn Scaggs Avatar

      Thanks for the book suggestion and for leaving feedback! Another technique I’ve started using is to acknowledge my errors by saying “I made a mistake…..” and then finish the thought. Saying those words out-loud help me remove my self-induced stigma around the error.

      As always, I appreciate you reading and sharing your thoughts in return.

  2. Kate Rancourt Avatar
    Kate Rancourt

    I always describe myself as a “Recovering Perfectionist”!
    We actually just spoke on this yesterday with a group of RU Interior Design majors in our Advisory Board meeting. Not one person in this world is perfect – so we cannot expect perfection from ourselves nor anyone around us. We all make mistakes — but do we own up to them? A big part of mistake making to me is awareness of the mistake and perhaps an ownership/apology without excuses and then asking myself these questions: “why did this happen?”, “what did I learn?”, and “how am I going to avoid this in the future?”.

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