In one of my favorite scenes of How I Met Your Mother, older Ted opens by talking about how smart phones have ruined conversation.  It shows a time, years before, when the gang is arguing over what the most popular food in America is.  Pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs:  they’re all passionately defended, as well as pancakes with maple syrup by the resident Canadian.  Fast forward to 2011, when someone brings up the same question, phone in hand:

“Hey, remember when we were arguing about the most popular food?”

“It’s bread.”

Everyone says, “Ah…” in a bored manner, and the debate is killed.

So how does this relate to parenting?

What do you do when your child asks a question, especially a science-related question (that you may or may not know the answer to!)?  I know, I love the magic of Google, where you can almost instantly find the answer to any question.  And it’s gratifying to find out the answer.  After all, we get a spike of dopamine whenever we look for and find something, whether it’s a tasty snack, or in this case, the answer to our research (incidentally, this is much of why you can get so hooked to your phone!  But we’ll save that for another day).

But, just like Ted, Marshall, and Robin arguing at the bar and thereby being deeply engaged with one another, there is immense value in letting your child try something on their own, even if it’s wrong.  Letting your child work through his or her process and questions gives him the chance to improve his own critical thinking skills.  That doesn’t mean you give no input, that just means you don’t automatically answer a question.

For example, maybe your little one wonders why the sky is blue. Instead of saying, “Well, this Scientific American article says it’s because blue light is scattered more than red light, leading it to have a higher intensity reaching our eyes (btw, I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned something today),” try instead saying, “Gosh, I don’t know!  Why do you think?” and just see what they come up with.

This concept even applies to babies who aren’t speaking yet.  I have fond memories of General Leia when she was almost one playing with a shape sorter.  For months, she struggled to get shapes into it.  I thought about picking up a shape and putting it into the bucket to show her how it worked, but I thought it would be more valuable for her to try herself.  And her persistence paid off!

And even though it took little Leia a long time to get that one “circle in the circle hole” at first, the struggle was helpful for her.  Studies with mice show that their brains actually change and grow through trial-and-error learning.  The same is true for us! This is why active learning, especially for children, is preferred over sitting in a desk and listening to someone teach.

Most skills will require mistakes for kids (and adults) to master them.  The trick is to remember that it’s okay!  For example, a few years ago, the girls went to a pumpkin patch.  They each got a little pumpkin and a sticker set to make a face on their pumpkin.  So we let them work them when they got home.  Here are the results:

General Leia’s pumpkin when she was about two-and-a-half.


Bella Bean’s pumpkin when she was only about sixteen months old. There’s no reason the parts have to be in the “right” place!


And this was the pumpkin I was working on at that time. It was pretty much perfect πŸ™‚

Could I have guided the girls into making “better” faces on their pumpkins?  Easily!  But other than satisfying my own aesthetic sense, what purpose would that serve?

Perhaps we think, “But they have to know the right way to do it!”  One day, yes.  A lot of times when my kids are doing something less than perfectly, I ask myself, “Is this something they’ll eventually figure out on their own?”  The answer is almost always yes.

And we’ve all had times even as adults, maybe especially as adults, where we’ve fallen short of our goal.  That’s why we love Pinterest Fails, they make us feel better about ourselves!  So think about your latest “Pinterest fail,” whether it’s a craft, a hairstyle, your attempt at winged eyeliner, or even a big project at work.  Whatever it is, think back to something that you knew was not as good as what you imagined in your head.  Pretend that after you completed it, someone came up and told you, “You know, you didn’t do that right.  It’s supposed to look exactly like this picture.”  What would your reaction be?  I know I’d be irate!  I could just hear myself exclaiming, “I know it’s supposed to look like that!  I tried and just screwed it up.  Λ†You do it better then, buddy!”

Your kid probably has an “ideal” in his head for whatever he was making too.  And let’s be real, the thing he made likely isn’t up to the standard in his head either.  So when we come and “fix” it for him, either by moving the stickers to the “right” place or whatever the situation is, it’s probably kinda demoralizing.  Do you think he’ll be as excited to try a similar project the next time?

This is a big lesson I’ve really only started working for myself over the past few years.  Let’s go back to the hairstyle example.  I used to not be able to braid my own hair at all.  My arms would get tired, I’d drop pieces, and it would generally look like a mess (and not in a cute way).  So I just assumed I was “bad at braiding” and envied people who were “good at it.”  When I would try, I’d fail, and then I’d be in a bad mood afterwards because I wan’t good enough for my own standard.

But eventually I learned how to stop getting so angry at my lack of perfection.  After all, the worst that could happen is I give up, stick my hair in a bun, and move on.  And I started getting better at it!  I’ve moved from, “Hey, this braid looks kinda weird and I don’t know why, but it’s staying together!” to “Hmm, if I pull sections into my French braid at the beginning instead of the end, I get a totally different-looking braid,” and being mostly able to execute the ideas.  That doesn’t mean that my braids always look like I plan, but I’m able to approach each attempt as a learning experience with low stakes.

You may be saying, Srsly, I wanted to read about how to help my kids learn, not to hear about your emotional growth as evidenced through your attitudes towards hairstyling.  I hear you. So here’s your list to demonstrate how to help your children learn based on what we talked about:

  • As much as possible, allow your kids to explore their environment, whether inside or outside.
  • Don’t immediately answer your kids questions.  Instead, ask leading questions in turn to get them to think.
  • Allow your children to be wrong sometimes.  They’ll figure it out eventually.
  • Instill a “practicing” mindset, where your child knows that whatever they’re dealing with is low-stakes in the scheme of things.  You won’t be upset at mistakes, and they don’t have to get upset at themselves.
  • Model making mistakes for them.  That doesn’t mean to screw up on purpose, but when you do on something that’s child-appropriate, allow them to know that it happened and how you plan to handle it.

I hope this information has been helpful.  I also hope it’s maybe led to some introspection about acceptance of both your child’s humanity and your own.  Do you want to share ideas with other like-minded parents about how to help your kids learn (or to get out of the way of their learning?) Join us at our Facebook Group, Evidence-based parents. Happy parenting!