Why we want our kids to make mistakes

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

In the fall of 2015, I started investigating parenting philosophies beyond the one in which I teach, the Parent Encouragement Program. From an easy chair in my bedroom, I watched a Skype transmission of the renowned parent educator Vicki Hoefle leading the first session of her six-week parenting class in Burlington, Vermont.

“Parenting is getting more difficult, not easier, as we find ourselves completely immersed in a digital age with information bombarding us all day long. It’s so hard to figure out how to navigate this new terrain of child raising,” Hoefle, most widely known as the author of the book Duct Tape Parenting, told the class of about twenty parents.

“It’s even more important that we stop and give ourselves time to create a parenting approach that is based in foundational principles and it’s something you’ve thought about and is intentional,” she said, barely staying within the frame of my laptop screen as she strode back and forth in front of the class.

“So we land on an approach of parenting that is sustainable for us and sustainable for our kids. Then we can relax a bit and make more informed and thoughtful parenting decisions. The worst decisions are made out of fear. The worst decisions are made when we’re not sure what to do but we think we have to do something.”

Hoefle encouraged the class to take the next six weeks to hit the pause button and reset their parenting approach. They’d pull the things that are useful from the class. Their own kids would give them the information they need about what works and what’s unnecessary. Over and over, they’d return to focus on relationship and independence—the two factors at the root of most family problems.

Parents need to talk less and listen more, Hoefle said. They must abandon the reward and punishment models that have merely served to encourage the pesky behaviors that brought them to the class.

“If talking worked, you’d have all perfect children and not one of you in here does,” she said. “If spanking and punishing and consequencing and time-outing and counting worked, I would be out of business and none of you people would be here, because all of your children would be doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, all the time. What you get is momentary compliance with that kind of parenting. [It’s] not sustainable.”

The goal, Hoefle said, isn’t to lecture your children so that they never make a mistake, but to kick-start their critical thinking by asking them questions, drawing out information. The goal is to have a strong relationship and to encourage your children toward independence. That way, they’ll see you as a resource rather than an obstacle.

“Mistakes are when learning happens,” she said. “We want to create an environment where kids are making mistakes every single day and we are there to help them process.”


Hoefle ground to a halt halfway through her second-session curriculum the evening I visited Burlington. The parents kept bringing up scenarios for her to solve. When is screen time a privilege that goes along with a responsibility (good) and when is it a bribe (bad)? How should they handle a child who lingers over dinnertime? The mom in the green raincoat raised her hand.

“Now what?” Hoefle said with mock impatience.

“We had an incident this weekend where my son had a playdate. They did something naughty,” the mom said.

“What did they do?”

“They wrote all over a door in markers.”

“At your house?”


“How old are they?” Hoefle asked.


“What are you doing with markers where everybody can get them?”

“My six-year-old left them out and I didn’t realize they were there.”

“So they wrote on the door and that’s naughty because . . . ”

“If you would write on paper or places other than your walls and doors,” the mom responded with a chuckle.

“But is it naughty? Do you think he was doing it to be bad?”

“I think he knows the difference between right and wrong,” she said.

“Okay. I just wanted to check. So what did you do?” Hoefle said.

“I had a talk with him,” she said.

The room exploded with laughter. They’d already gotten that Hoefle thinks parents talk and lecture too often.

“So what’s the problem? In one sentence, what’s the problem?”

The mom was stumped. She stuttered a bit.

“Failure to manage markers,” offered another mom.

“What’s the problem that you’re solving in that moment?” Hoefle pressed.

Green raincoat was still at a loss.

“That’s what’s tripping you up,” Hoefle said.

“How to repair the door,” suggested a pregnant mom.

“Yes! The problem is the door has markers on it. You’re trying to make the kid the problem,” Hoefle said.

“So make him clean the door?” green raincoat asked.

“Make him? Well, you could try. Good luck with that.” More chuckles.

Instead, Hoefle suggested, the mother could ask her four-year-old,“‘So you wrote on the doors. How did that start?’ I want to know what got him excited, so I can give him good information. ‘Uh huh. What did you think would happen when we saw the door?’ I always smile when I say that because then they think, Maybe I’m not going to get in trouble.

She continued with the mock conversation between the mom and child after she discovered the marks on the door.

“Actually, I didn’t know.”

“Okay, that’s good information, you didn’t know. If you had to guess, now, what might happen, what would you guess?”

“No TV?”

“Nope,” Hoefle said, voicing the mom’s response in the mock conversation.

“I don’t know.”

“‘The door has to get cleaned,’ the mom will explain. ‘So how do you do that?’ I lead them right in. I already know where the path is. I’m just moving them to the idea that of course the door is going to get cleaned and would they like to use the Brillo pads? ‘Do you know where they are? No? Would you like me to go into the kitchen with you?’”

The room fell completely silent as the parents processed these ideas.

“Truthfully, I don’t care about the door,” Hoefle said. “I could give two craps about the door. If my kid was diagnosed with an illness, I can tell you I wouldn’t care about the door or the markers on the door. I have to put that in perspective all the time. Is this something that’s going to get me cranked up? No way in hell. It’s a learning opportunity.

“My house is not on the market. I don’t have a realtor coming to show it. What do I want to teach my child? That people make mistakes. This is an opportunity to take responsibility for that mistake, to learn to think before you do things, which is a lifelong skill, and then to make amends. That’s it. Same thing a million times.”

She encouraged the class to slow the whole process down, to engage their children’s brains in solving the problem and planning the next steps. It’s not magic, but just a matter of parents keeping their cool and understanding that the problem isn’t that the child did something bad.

“The problem is: there’s markers on the door. Now we can get him involved. But not if we say he’s the problem. Then we have to fix him. There’s nothing wrong with him. He made a mistake,” she said.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist, author of THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT BAD BEHAVIOR: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever—And What To Do About It, and a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program.

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