Mistake phobia: No, it’s not a real diagnosis, although maybe it ought to be. I came up with the idea while listening to a mom talk about her 9-year-old son:
“My son, Theo, can never seem to finish anything,” she said. “He starts all kinds of projects but gets easily frustrated when they don’t look exactly like what he had in mind. Often he storms away in tears. A good example is the way he worked with his Legos the other day. We saw some dinosaurs made out of those little bricks at the local children’s museum. When we came home, he tried to make one too. After trying for about 15 minutes, he kicked the bricks in all directions, calling himself stupid and dumb.
The same thing happened when it was time for the Pinewood Derby in Cub Scouts. The kids are supposed to make their cars themselves with only a little help from parents. We got him the materials and his dad stayed in the background while he worked at it. When he couldn’t get the wheels straight on his first try, he threw them into the trash. No amount of talking with him seemed to work. He was convinced that everyone else can do such things the right way and that he is stupid if he can’t. We try to encourage him to stick with it. We offer to help him finish. But that seems to make him even more upset.”
One reasonable guess about Theo is that he has become almost phobic about what he considers making a “mistake.” He doesn’t see his attempts as a way to learn what does and doesn’t work. He doesn’t have patience with exploring alternatives. Instead, he wants very much to do things right the first time, every time.
Of even more concern is that he seems to have the idea that falling short of a goal means that he is stupid and deficient. By not finishing anything, he avoids facing the feeling that he is a personal failure because he can’t make his projects match his ideas. It’s a strategy that preserves what is left of his self-esteem but at a high price. Instead of learning how to use the information that comes from mistakes, he is avoiding making any. If this keeps up, he is likely to become increasingly anxious and more and more cautious in his approach to life’s challenges.
Many adults can understand Theo’s method for dealing with his fear of “mistakes.” Some people only choose to do things they know they can be good at. They are unwilling to try challenging themselves because they may look foolish to others or may be less than competent during the learning curve. Still others set their personal standards so high that it is more likely than not that they will fail to meet them. To them, lowering their standards is unacceptable but meeting their standards is impossible. The result? They back away from trying at all. As with all things, children pick up the adults’ attitudes towards mistakes and their methods for meeting, or in this case, avoiding, challenges.
It turns out that Theo is very much like his dad. Although he is often hard on himself, he has tried to be careful not to impose his standards on Theo. He understands that when adults get frustrated and scold or criticize kids for not doing things fast enough or well enough, those kids pick up “mistake phobia” as naturally as they picked up their native language. But Theo, being a smart and observant kid, knows that his dad often falls short of his own expectations. Because he admires his dad, he is picking up a style that his dad admits has handicapped him for years.
Mistake phobia can be crippling. When a child, or an adult, can’t let herself risk failure, she also risks that she won’t find success. Mastering new things takes the willingness to make mistakes, to manage frustration when we don’t “get it,” and perhaps to look foolish to others while we learn. Solving problems requires the ability to think of alternatives and to sort those that will work from those that won’t.
Theo’s mom is right to be concerned. We talked about what she can do to change the situation. If you have a child who has developed “mistake phobia,” here are some tips for turning things around:
- Model that we learn from mistakes. Let your kids know that everything you try doesn’t work out as you planned. Talk about how important it is to find out what doesn’t work so that you can go in a new direction.
- By all means, praise kids for completed products but also encourage them to see successes as they go along. When we focus only on their masterpieces, we deprive kids of the opportunity to build on each smaller success.
- Give kids a vote of confidence when the going gets tough. Simply acknowledge that it is tempting to give up when frustrated. Let them know that you believe in their ability to think of something.
- If you offer to help, make sure that you are only helping, not taking over. When adults finish up a task, it gives the kids the message that they can’t do it well enough or quick enough. This discourages them from wanting to try again.
There is a story about Thomas Edison, the man often credited with inventing the lightbulb. After his seven hundredth unsuccessful attempt to invent electric light, he was asked by a New York Times reporter, “How does it feel to have failed seven hundred times?” Edison responded, “I have not failed seven hundred times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those seven hundred ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Several thousand more of these successes followed, but Edison finally found the one that would work, and invented the electric light.
The cure for “mistake phobia” lies in cultivating that attitude!