a mistake-based education

I’ve decided that life is just a series of mistakes. Hopefully we learn from them.

Some people might find this discouraging, but I think it’s liberating. People aren’t trying to be bad intentionally, they’re just learning.

This is a helpful perspective to have when it comes to parenting. I make mistakes, yes, but my children? They make them all the time. This baffles and frustrates me, but I’m learning to take it in stride. For example, when the pretty lanterns get re-filled with smelly kerosene instead of the scentless stuff, it’s just a learning opportunity: I learn to bite my tongue (after letting it have free rein for a minute or three) and the child learns there is a difference between lamp fuels and to never fill them without permission. Or when a child empties the garbage and presses down on the bag and slices open the back of the hand with a piece of broken glass, proper-handling-of-garbage skills are acquired (and not to be forgotten any time soon).

Those are private, at-home examples. It’s not quite as easy to maintain perspective when the mistakes are made in public. When I get news that a child of mine is messing with a teacher’s Sunday school room or breaking someone’s stuff or not paying attention or getting downright sassy, my freak-out alert goes off. My kids are a mess! Erp! Erp! Erp! The sky is falling! The world is ending! I’m sure everyone’s shaking their heads over my miscreant, hyperactive, odd-ball little brats. And far and away, the most enthusiastic head-shaker is me.

But then, after ricocheting around in La-La Panic Land for a bit, it dawns on me, “Wait. Kids are kids. Of course they’re going to screw up. Get over it already.” And then I do damage control, stage an intervention, whatever, and that’s it.

I’ve recently had several conversations with friends regarding their kids’ behaviors, the ones that are setting off the parental Erp-Erp Alerts. One child was hitting other children. Another was fiercely resisting any sort of chores. Others kept getting down from the dinner table despite the parents’ best attempts at civilized meals. What to do? What to do?

Where I sit, in all my 42-accumulated-years of parenting (just add up the ages of your kids if you want to feel super wise and super old), their problems seem healthy. This does not mean their panic and concern is any less daunting—no, not at all—but I do know it is perfectly normal, and that, glory be, it, too, shall pass.

As my children get older, I’m losing the freedom to share about their temper tantrums or anxieties. Those stories belong to my children and that’s as it should be. But it’s also weird because my husband and I are still up to our eyeballs in the stresses of parenting. The difference is that now we can’t scream Help! I’m drowning in poppy diapers! to the general public. Instead, our problems, though every bit as shitty, have to be handled with caution. Shouting them into the void is about as helpful as lobbing them at a whirring fan.

So, when I’m up to my eyeballs in progeny screw-ups, here’s what I do. I dredge up all the pulling-out-my-hair moments of parenting: the constant taking my children out of church services, the exhausting hours spent playing bedtime whack-a-mole, the battles over tasting new foods, the trashed bedrooms, the nerve-racking doctor visits, the miserable car trips with screaming babies. And then I think, Look now! The children (mostly) sit through church services, putting them to bed at night is 90 percent a piece of cake, they are gaining tolerance for flavor differences, bedrooms are manageably clean, doctor visits don’t require weeks of prep and hours of debriefing, and car rides….well, car rides still need work. I ponder all this family history real hard, and then I tell myself that whatever it is we are dealing with—an extra-mouthy kid, a lack of respect of personal items, a propensity for doing headstands on sofas—all this, too, shall pass. Glory be.

If all this mistaking-making truly is a valuable learning experience, shouldn’t I be counting it as such? As a homeschooler, I keep a log of the children’s learning experiences: plays we see, choirs they sing in, trips we take, etc. I’m beginning to think it’d only be logical to start including things like backing the van into the dog kennel and writing an apology letter for sassing the music teacher. Because that kind of education is every bit as valuable as learning the multiples of four and that potassium nitrate is an explosive, right?

And speaking of potassium nitrate, would you let your children make their own gun powder? ‘Cause I’m really interested in helping my children be top-of-the-line pupils…

I should probably go memorize the Serenity Prayer now.

 P.S. The photography models are the aforementioned star pupils, though not necessarily actively engaged in their mistake-based education.


  • Becky

    YES, problems. Ones we cannot blast all over the internet. My current biggest one is how to break the habit of her continually dropping clean clothes in her dirty clothes hamper – apparently it's an all purpose storage device.

  • momma-lana

    134 parenting years unless I add the four spouses of our kids who become your kids too and then the number pretty much doubles. Adult children problems are different. They are less frequent but can by many times more painful and frustrating. Sometimes we have to let them make very big mistakes so they can learn just like we did. Tough love.

  • Daniel

    Be very, very careful with the gunpowder. A friend was doing something similar when it spontaneously combusted and badly burned his face and eyes. I'm not normally one to be overly cautious, but that stuff is dangerous if not handled properly.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Good to know that my fears are rational. At this point, gunpowder making is just in the talking stages. I'll keep it there. (Or else proceed with a couple of knowledgeable adults present.)

  • Margo

    SUCH a helpful perspective – thank you. so much easier to focus on the mistake as bad and that teaches our children nothing except to hide their mistakes. oops.

  • Mama Pea

    Oh, I am SO glad those years are over for me. But wait. There are still "problems." Different ones, but they still exist. Sigh.

  • KTdid

    "This too shall pass" Yes, yes, my dear, it all passes. Don't wish it away any more swiftly. Because when "this" passes, there will always be more (it morphs but never disappears). And meanwhile, the good gets carried off right along with the bad!
    Yours is my favorite blog.

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