It’s OK to make mistakes. Really.

Originally posted March 1, 2008

Noah greeted me waving a half-eaten drumstick in one hand and a chubby fistful of steak fries in the other.I’d just deposited him and some grocery bags on the kitchen floor so that I could run back out to the car for the rest. Upon my return I discovered that he’d wasted no time opening the fried chicken from the deli counter, and the box of grapes was lying open beside him on the kitchen floor. I considered tossing my self-sufficienttwo-year-old into his highchair and tidying up, but he had such a triumphant, toothy grin on his face that 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. And it was. I joined Noah in his picnic, and we had a grand time giggling about how silly we were and how different it felt to eat on the floor. The only thing missing was a patchwork picnic blanket.

Though I had a hunch I was being very hip and progressive,the truth is,I was just too pooped from keeping up with my toddler to protest his impromptu picnic. I’d 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,” however. 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 especially appreciated an anecdote she related about a prominent scientist, whocredits an early incident with his Mother with the inspiration he needed for the confidence and freedom to develop into a curious scientist.

When he was two years old, he tried to remove a bottle of milk from the refrigerator. The heavy bottle slipped his grasp and milk poured all over the kitchen floor. Upon surveying the mighty puddle of milk, his Mother expressed awe. (Yes, hearing this gave me pause, too.)

“What an amazing puddle,” she admired. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a huge puddle of milk before,” she exclaimed. Without uttering a shaming word or scornful tone, she then 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 he learned that it was okay to make mistakes.

That’s huge.

We’ve all heard stories of inventions that began as accidents (think Penicillin and Post-it notes). 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 okay 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 clean up after yourself. In fact, as this story illustrates, it’s even cooler to learn to help each other, too, 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 get it right. Here’s a high-five for you, too.

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