Why mistakes are so important to our children

“Trial and error” – try, make mistakes, do better. This is how it always works when we humans want to learn something right: with feeling and reason. But we adults often get in the way of children. We spoke to educational researcher Gerd Geigrenzer about the right error culture and why mistakes can motivate children rather than slow them down.

7 insights into a culture of positive error

Children learn from mistakes. You should be allowed to make mistakes and understand them. We adults must be careful not to reveal too many “this is how you work” and “this is how you do it” points of view. So says Professor Gerd Geigrenzer, Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and since 2020 Director of the Harding Center for Competence in Risk Management at the University of Potsdam. It reveals the insights that we adults must realize in order to support our children.

#1 Mistakes are often a good thing

There is always something negative about the word “wrong”. There are also “good” mistakes that are important for always learning. We must be more aware of this fact, says Professor Gerd Geigrenzer. “Example: A child learns language, but comes into contact with irregular verbs. For example, you say ‘I thought’ instead of ‘I thought.’ This is a good mistake. It shows that the rule can be applied – like ‘I did’. By making mistakes with the much smaller number of irregular verbs, he then also becomes aware of the exceptions to the rule.”

#2 Mistakes are an opportunity for progress

Dealing with the error properly is critical. We must begin to see mistakes not as stupidity, but as an opportunity to advance and learn. Because in this way it often becomes clear to us how something does not work and how we can do it better or differently. This is exactly how children develop their skills. However, we prevent it if we convey to them that one must not make mistakes. So mistakes should not remain unused, according to Gerd Geigrenzer: “We scientists organize our research in such a way that we can learn from mistakes. We try new things to make good mistakes.”

“A bad mistake is the one you don’t learn from.”

Professor Gerd Geigrenzer

#3 There is not always the only solution to a problem

Typical school scene: The teacher asks the children how to solve a problem. Some ideas emerge, but none of the “right solution”. Therefore, it is ignored until the child says the expected answer. The problem with this is that if a student is skipped with a wrong or incorrect answer entirely, they will not learn anything. Such scenes often occur at home. Thus, opportunities to exercise the power of judgment and discovery are lost.

Gerd Geigrenzer also warns of this: “We still know a lot according to the scheme of telling the kids, that’s right, that’s wrong, there’s exactly one solution. But that’s not usually the case. We give them more to do when we say: Look, that’s a problem, now you can come up with To solutions. Also in school we should create more forums to produce and defend ideas and also to be able to drop arguments if they are wrong.”

#4 Kids should have time to solve problems on their own

We adults tend to quickly become “knowledgeable” because of our great leadership in lived experiences. This often starts when our children make their first attempts at playing. “Look, the ball has to go in the round hole, the dice in the square!” The child succeeds in nothing on the first try, he is frustrated. As parents, we sometimes intervene prematurely so that the child can move on.

But really, we’re depriving him of an important experience. That sometimes it takes several tries before something works and that it’s entirely possible to find a solution to a problem on your own, even if it takes a long time. So it is important that we take a step back and allow the child to have their own experiences, including mistakes and frustrations. Once they discover for themselves how something works, the joy increases, and the learning effect is greater.

#5 Mistakes that enhance your sense of discovery

By allowing our children to have their own experiences, they gain important skills. Finding your way through mistakes and finding solutions are skills that will always come in handy later in life. In addition, learning with self-impact strengthens the character.

This feeling of being able to be daring about something without being constantly swept away by small, subtle corrections is of great value to children. Sure enough, it’s also why they love the stories of adventurers and explorers so much – because they dare to pursue their instinctive curiosity, even if things go wrong. And it’s often your fault that it helps. Without him, they would not have made any progress at all. Then, in the end, your sense of discovery triumphs, which is the foundation of lifelong learning.

#6 We should give children more responsibility

Not only do children mature, but parents also have to develop more: in terms of how confident they are in their children. From an early age, we should begin to let go of more and more in some respects. “If we protect our children too much from all the dangers, the children will pay the price,” warns Professor Gerd Geigrenzer. “The typical example is increased sensitivity due to fear of small amounts of dirt. In general, we don’t trust enough children and young adults. We should give them increased responsibility as they get older. They will make mistakes and can learn from them.”

Adolescence in particular is a time when young people quickly make decisions that may not be well thought out. But that’s part of life, after all we’ve all been in that special age. Habitual neglect during this time often results in parents not trusting their children with a great deal of responsibility. But: “But it is also wrong to deprive young people who are already ready to take responsibility. They are entitled to this opportunity to mature,” says Gerd Giggrenzer.

“In general, we do not trust enough children and young people. We must give them increased responsibility as they get older.”

Professor Gerd Geigrenzer

#7 Parents and teachers should watch out for mistakes

We have to learn to put the advantage of knowledge that we have as adults and have more life experience behind than children who are just learning and discovering, accepting that they make “good” and “bad” mistakes and thus gaining experience. Of course, we don’t want anyone to care about a child’s insistence that 2 + 2 = 5, but at this point they could be asked to prove their mathematical discovery, such as making 5 apples out of two and two apples.

There are many teachers who actually make their lessons “error friendly” and allow their students to try things out for themselves. Absorb the errors and ask yourself if there is an idea of ​​your own in them. We parents can do the same by paying attention to what is wrong. It takes courage, because even the “wrong” style of climbing on the field or an awkward attempt on the bike is part of it – the whole person is always learning. But it is worth it. Because the future needs brave outside-the-box thinkers and our children need real fun in learning.

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Image Credit: Unsplash / Xavier Mouton Photography

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