It’s OK to make mistakes (really)

PARENTING ISN’T FOR sissiesMy son, Noah, greeted me waving a half-eaten drumstick in one hand and a chubby fistful of steak fries in the other. He was nearly 2, and only a moment earlier I’d deposited him and some grocery bags on the kitchen floor so I could run back out to the car for the last few bags. Upon my return I discovered he’d wasted no time opening the fried chicken from the deli counter. The grapes were also open beside him on the kitchen floor.

I considered tossing my self-sufficient son into his highchair and tidying up, but he had such a triumphant toothy grin on his face, greasy from his impromptu picnic, I just didn’t have the heart to spoil his good time—especially after he extended his drumstick to me, a tasty olive branch of sorts. I joined Noah in his picnic and we had a grand time giggling about how silly and fun it was to eat on the floor.

Little did I know that I’d maybe done a good thing. Too tired from keeping up with my toddler to protest his picnic plans, I merely hoped to avert a meltdown (mine), not sow the seeds of genius in my kid.

No doubt, a bunch of you out there are waving your drumsticks in weary recognition. Dr. Bertie Kingore, noted education consultant and mom to three gifted sons, might say we’ve all"done good.”

A pioneer in her field, Kingore often makes humorous and helpful presentations to educators and parents on the subject of understanding the special needs of gifted kids. (For the record, I think all kids are gifted. It’s our job to notice and nurture their particular gifts.)

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Kingore speak and particularly appreciated an anecdote she related about a prominent scientist. When asked by a reporter what event in his life had been the most formative in his becoming a scientist, he recalled an early incident with his mother. Once, when he was 2, he tried to remove a bottle of milk from the refrigerator, but the heavy bottle slipped his grasp and milk poured all over the kitchen floor. Returning to the kitchen, his mother expressed awe."What an amazing puddle,” she admired."I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a huge puddle of milk before.” Without uttering a shaming word, she gave him the option of using a mop, a sponge or a towel and with him proceeded to clean up the spill. Then they took the empty milk bottle out to the backyard, where his mom suggested he fill it with water and practice carrying it. The scientist cited this event as the pivotal moment when he learned that it was OK to make mistakes.

That’s huge. We’ve all heard stories of inventions that began as accidents (think Penicillin and Post-it notes), but, more importantly, with us humans, accidents are bound to happen. It’s how we respond to them that matters, especially in our work as parents. It’s OK to break the rules and make messes on purpose, too, and, I point out—lest anyone be concerned that I’m advocating a complete abdication of any parental limit-setting—it’s also cool to learn to clean up after yourself. In fact, it’s even cooler to learn to help each other, even if we didn’t make the mess in the first place.

I absolutely love this story. I gave that scientist’s mom a virtual high-five, then indulged myself in a little pat on my own back at the fried-chicken-picnic memory it inspired.

But then I thought about it. Fried chicken is one thing, but how on earth did that woman have the presence of mind to reframe something that would make most parents wilt with defeat into a teachable moment and a boon to her little son’s blossoming self-esteem, all in one fell swoop? I gotta figure that she didn’t always respond to her little boy’s messes with such poise.

But every now and then, we parents do get it right. Here’s a high-five for you, too.

Submit YOUR QUESTIONSGot a question or concern you’d like me to address? Nothing is off limits. If you’re a parent and it’s on your mind, chances are you’re not alone. Don’t suffer the wonders. Send your questions to

Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at

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