The Gift of Failure: The Importance of Letting Children Make Mistakes

The Gift of Failure... The Importance of Letting Children Make Mistakes...

I am well-versed in all of the sound bites… It’s okay to make mistakes, learn from your mistakes, mistakes welcome here! I have them all perfectly lined up in my intellectualized self. Yet the truth is that I was exposed this Valentine’s Day season.

As my children get older, I am letting them take on more responsibility. For example, we just moved, which is giving me an exciting opportunity to re-create our atelier. I am finding that my philosophy for creating spaces for older children is evolving. As my daughters get more and more inspired by DIYs they discover on the internet (I discuss this phenomena more here), I am making more and more materials readily available and accessible to them, so that they can create spontaneously and independently.

It has been interesting to watch them embrace this new found freedom and I love seeing how empowered they feel when they can bring their ideas to life. I am taking a backseat in this process and have been watching in awe as they rise to the occasion.

Except, believe it or not, I have found that I have natural tendencies to be the worst kind of backseat driver! I can confidently rattle off all of the well rehearsed lines about the benefits of making mistakes, but I found myself jumping in on numerous occasions in an effort to “help” the girls avoid making mistakes. I am grateful that the first couple of times they respectfully  declined to take my advice, which gave me the opportunity to observe their process in its entirety. And what happened? When I finally stepped way back, they were both able to take their projects from idea to completion. While some of their initial attempts didn’t work, they adapted, changed strategies, incorporated different materials, and yes, learned a lot along the way.

Two simple examples are…

  1. On the card in the photo above, my daughter wanted to individually stamp each letter in her Valentine message. Although it was a lovely idea, I knew that she would burn out and not want to finish all of them. When I tried to “help” her by telling her that upfront, she looked at me as if I was squashing her creative brilliance (and I was). So, I stepped back and let her execute her plan. After two cards she decided it wasn’t going to happen and changed her card design. All without any input from me. It was a wonderful process to witness, because she enjoyed every minute of it and was very pleased with herself and the beautiful Valentines that she made for her friends at school. The Gift of Failure: The Importance of Letting Children Make Mistakes
  2. I usually micromanage the set-up and clean-up experience. Yet, I am also starting to encourage bigger projects that take place over time, which means that we may need to leave materials out for longer periods. When I came into the atelier the next morning, after a fun night of  making Valentine’s, I saw that my daughter had forgot to put the top back on the glue stick. In the past I would have made sure that did not happen. Yet, it did, and I realized that it was another good learning opportunity. I left it there until she came back to continue her work. I let her discover it on her own, so that she could internalize the fact that the glues stick was unusable and had been ruined. That process was far more powerful than if I had reminded her for the 463rd time to make sure the lid was on the glues stick or if I had been the one to point out that it was left off and shame her for her actions. Did we have to sacrifice a good glue stick? Yes, but I can’t help but think that she will be a lot more thoughtful about taking care of her art materials in the future.

The Gift of Failure: The Importance of Letting Children Make Mistakes

I realized that my quick suggestions about what would work and what would not work might have saved them time, but would have defeated the purpose. I realized that the reason I had those quick answers is because I had years of mistakes under my belt. I realized that my daughters also need years of mistakes under their belts as well. Then, I realized that if I am so quick to jump in during craft sessions in an effort for them to avoid failure, that I must be doing it in other areas of their lives. What other learning opportunities am I sabotaging with my good intentions?

The Gift of Failure...


I am more convinced than ever that we need to let children… Feel life. Experience cause and effect. Develop hypotheses and modify them as they test their ideas. Get knocked down. Get back up. Take risks… And find their voices.


I look forward to exploring this topic and more in the upcoming Art of Parenting eCourse, which starts on Feb. 24. We have a wonderful group of participants and would love for you to join us. To register, click here.


The Art of Parenting eCourse


With over 10 years of EDU experience and a growing family, Mariah started Playful Learning in 2008 as a resource for parents and teachers. In 2010 Playful Learning received the Parent’s Choice Gold Medal, and in August of 2011, Shambhala Publications released her first book, Playful Learning: Develop Your Child’s Sense of Joy and Wonder. Mariah has an M.S. Ed in Elementary Education and was that girl sitting in the back of class thinking about what she would do differently if she was the teacher. Now she is happily working with a team of gifted educators to bring life-changing lessons to children, families, and schools around the world. In her free time she can be found taking long walks, enjoying a cup of tea, or swimming in the Atlantic with her husband and two daughters.



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  1. Maybe because our kids are the same ages but I know EXACTLY what you are going through! I love their new found independence but it can be hard on us Mamas! I keep reminding myself that the kids aren’t the only ones going through a learning curve. I find the most difficult area to step back from is the organizing and decorating! tee hee Excellent post!

    1. Agreed 🙂

      In the last few days my eyes have been opened by observing my behavior during craft projects. I just wonder what other areas I have blind spots to…

      Thanks for stopping by Joey!

  2. Mariah, this post really spoke to me. I am so excited by my daughter’s blossoming sewing skills and I know she has can use the sewing machine safely. I also know that the only way I can avoid hovering and offering advice is to leave the room and make myself busy somewhere else!
    I am going to take your very useful insight and have a think about where else I am stepping in before I give my children a chance to benefit from working it out for themselves.

    1. Yes, it is our good intentions with the offering of advice… Even this morning, my daughters were baking and I found myself starting in again. It is a process, but good to be aware of!

  3. I really needed to be reminded of this as I am always “jumping in” it seems, to save my girls!! Hey and also I love the collection of alphabet stamps you guys have….where did you get them? I would love to get some!!

  4. I have always found it hard not to jump in with suggestions as my kids are creating, but each time I resist I’m always amazed at what their minds come up with. It’s hard at times to have things not go as I’d envisioned, but it’s even better to see what the outcome is when I leave them to their own creativity.

  5. I am experiencing exactly the same thing in our house. It is so easy to step in and ‘fix’ or ‘prevent’ problems. Thank you so much for this great reminder.

  6. So much goodness here, but it made me giggle for completely unrelated reasons. I was just talking to my kids the other day about allowing themselves to make mistakes. My three year old obviously took the lesson to heart because today, when I chastised him for forgetting to aim and peeing all over the floor, he replied with great sincerity, “But mommy, I am just learning. I need to make mistakes to learn it right.” 🙂

  7. Thank you for the very insightful article. My daughters are 26 and 28 and because of my inability to let them make mistakes I have really created some stressful issues that they are living thru now. I find I’m still ”helping” them with life choices and I really want to be done! My regret that I didn’t step back has certainly colored the way all of our lives have been shaped. One daughter refuses any advise, the other can’t seem to take a step without me. This seems to be a common pattern with friends my age and their adult children. We did not have the internet and the insightful resources( like you) to help us. I also think the era played a large part. Thank you again.

  8. I have the opposite problem of a lovely boy who can’t bear the thought of getting it wrong (his brother doesn’t mind at all so I guess that lets my parenting off the hook) and I’m constantly having to encourage him to take a risk. I’m always reminding him, and myself, that mistakes are good but honestly I know I don’t really feel it deep down all the time. For the sake of expediency and sanity ‘getting it right’ is often important and I struggle to be clear about when it’s ok to risk (during our school or creative time) and when it’s not (when putting away laundry/walking by a lake)! I’m accepting that as I travel along this journey with them the one making the most mistakes is likely to be me ; ) Hopefully that means I’m learning a lot!

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