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Mistakes: A wonderful opportunity to learn

Most parents’ reactions to their teenagers when they’ve “messed up big-time” is that of anger.

Whether it is screaming and yelling or harsh punishment, it is often hard to keep one’s cool! “How could you be so stupid?” “Don’t you have a brain in your head?” are just a few reflex responses. Parents usually mean well when they try to motivate their children to do better by making them feel bad about their mistakes. However, they fail to think about the results of their good intentions. The reality is that kids will make mistakes. What parents should try to do is to replace negative beliefs about mistakes with the understanding about the value of mistakes: Mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. 

Teshuva, repentance, is a theme throughout Jewish texts. Not only is forgiveness and repentance a theme on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it is also a daily exercise. Our prayers acknowledge consciousness of our mistakes and our desire for repentance. In the Hashivenu (the fifth) blessing of the Amidah, we ask G-d for divine guidance for our efforts to return to the path of penitence. In the Talmud it is also written, “Great is repentance, it turns sins into incentive for right conduct.”    

So how can parents help their adolescents learn from the inevitable mistakes that they will make? One step is to set an example by the way you as a parent react when you make mistakes. Parents must be willing to admit when they’ve done wrong, and, secondly, must demonstrate how empowering it is to turn a mistake into a learning opportunity. Another step is to use a method called “The Four Rs of Recovery” (Lott and Nelsen). This approach will not only help your child learn a process that turns mistakes into learning opportunities, but it can also make your relationship with your teen better than it was before the mistake.

Four Rs of Recovery

• Recognition: Realize that you made a mistake.  

• Responsibility: Take responsibility for your part of the conflict that was created by your mistake. 

• Reconciliation: Apologize, i.e. “I’m sorry for treating you disrespectfully and for any hurt I may have created.”

• Resolution: If necessary, work on an agreement of what both of you could do that would be respectful and effective if the problem occurs again, or what could be done to fix any damage that might have been done.

Sometimes we think that our job as a parent is to be in control of our adolescent and keep them from making mistakes. The reality is that good decision-making takes practice. The earlier our children take control over their own decisions, the more opportunities they will have to learn from their mistakes. By letting your teen make their mistakes, you are doing your part in helping prepare them for the adult world. 

Susie Hurst, M.A. is an adolescent specialist and coordinates the C.H.A.I. program for Jewish Family Services. The C.H.A.I. program provides preventive education and consultations for teens, parents, educators and youth workers. Participants gain skills and information, within a Jewish context, that will help them with the tremendous challenges of adolescence. For more information, contact Hurst at 913-327-8259 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..