No one likes to make mistakes. We know we may not be perfect, but we try not to make too many mistakes — especially what we might consider ”stupid mistakes”. College students don’t like to make mistakes either, but they will probably make some — perhaps many — mistakes throughout their college career. It is difficult, as a parent, to watch your college student make what you might consider avoidable mistakes. The problem may not be the mistakes themselves, but the attitude that both parents and students have toward their mistakes.
Making mistakes is a way of learning. We may make mistakes when we try new things, or stretch our limits. Others may have made the same mistake before us, but we may need to make the mistake ourselves in order to learn from it. It doesn’t matter what others have told us, we need to have the experience ourselves. College is, in many ways, practice for life. College students may stumble and fall at times — sometimes in small ways and sometimes in more serious ways — but, hopefully, they will learn from their mistakes and become wiser. As college parents, we can help our students make sense of these experiences.
This post is not about specific mistakes that students make in college, but rather it is about how parents can help college students accept their mistakes as a valuable part of their college experience and learn from them. Sometimes the mistakes that students make in college may be very serious, and have serious consequences. It is important that parents consider carefully when to intervene. (Hint: it may not be as soon as we think.) Parents need to continue to find the balance between letting go and allowing their student to make a mistake and bear the consequences, and intervening when the student’s health or safety may be at stake.
Barring a serious issue of health or safety, one of the most difficult things that college parents need to do is step back and allow their student to make some mistakes. It is from these mistakes that students will, hopefully, learn, adapt and go on. Although we want to protect them from mistakes, the process of learning from mistakes is a transforming life skill which will help them establish an attitude for life. Students who are afraid of making mistakes, or who have been protected from ever making (sometimes serious) mistakes, may not learn how to make decisions because they become paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. Students who are afraid of making mistakes may be reluctant to try new things — one of the key experiences in college.
Perhaps you understand the importance and value of making mistakes in college, in a relatively protected environment, but you wonder how you can help your student find value in the mistakes they may have made. Here are a few things that you can do as a parent to help.
- Don’t jump in to rescue your student. Let them make the mistake — even though you may see it coming. Remember that this can be a positive experience.
- Help your student evaluate the experience. Making a mistake can be helpful if it means that your next decision will be different. What have they learned from this experience? What will they do differently next time?
- Help your student remember that learning is a process of constantly making and correcting mistakes, and that they have done it all of their life. How did they learn to walk, to ride a bike, to add 2+2?
- Avoid dwelling on the mistake, and help your student avoid dwelling on the mistake. View this as a new start with a new understanding and move forward.
- Help your student understand that one key to learning from being wrong is admitting that you are wrong. Help them bear the consequences of their choices and decisions. Help them take responsibility for their actions. Don’t allow them to blame the college, the instructor, friends, roommates, the situation.
- Try to find some successes in the experience. What did they do right? Did they handle the situation well? Did they show integrity and honesty in admitting to the mistake? Look at the positives.
- Help your student try to determine what caused the mistake. Was it caused by a lack of knowledge? Poor judgment? Carelessness? Learning the cause may help prevent another, similar mistake.
- Help your student put this situation in perspective. Is it a large, serious mistake, or something easily rectified? It may not be as serious as it seems.
- Help your student use this as an opportunity to reevaluate their actions and choices. In the long run, the problem will not be the mistake itself, but not learning from the mistake and evolving.
As college parents, it is important that we recognize that our students will make mistakes. It is difficult to watch, but it is through many of these mistakes that our college students will grow and mature. We can help our students keep these experiences in perspective and see mistakes as an opportunity rather than a failure. Our students will look to us for cues about our attitude toward mistakes.