When Your Kids Make a Mistake

diane sitting on steps with three kidsToday, I wrote a blog about why kids misbehave…an eternal concern of parents.

It often is because they LIE, not that they are necessarily untruthful, but because they Lack judgment, are Impulsive and Egocentric (self-centered.)

This concept can provide a general explanation for many of the difficult or challenging behaviors of children. Too, knowing this may cause parents to feel a little less angry or frustrated when kids do things as the result of their Lack of judgment, Impulsivity and Egocentricity.

Regardless of this explanation for difficult or challenging behaviors, parents can still react strongly to things children say or do despite being told not to do these things.

A friend of mine recently provided an example of children just being children. He had agreed to take care of a neighbor’s dog while they were away. The children know and really liked the dog, who was very friendly.

My friend was ready to cross the street into the backyard where the dog was when the children, ages 6 and 9, scampered ahead and toward the yard. “Don’t touch the back door because it will set off the alarm,” my friend firmly called out to them.

He was distracted for a few minutes before he could cross the street, but as he neared the fence, he heard the house alarm go off. One of the kids came running towards them, crying, “I’m so sorry! I forgot. I just wanted to go in the house and get some water for the dog. I’m so sorry!”

My friend said he could see the fear in the both children’s eyes while the siren continued to blare.

This was one of those parenting moments when he had to deal with his own immediate feelings of anger and frustration, quickly think about what he had to do next, and be careful not to react so strongly as to terrify his children.

“I had to make them realize how serious their mistake was, but I also realized they had no idea what their innocent action would do. I needed them to know that this was not the end of the world and everything would be okay. I also had to prepare them that the police would show up in a few minutes, which they did. This added to the children’s anxiety.”

a boy covering his ears with his eyes closedMy friend told his kids it was going to be okay, he could explain what happened to the police officer, and no one would get into serious trouble.

He said he was also aware as he calmed down from his first intense reaction that he could turn this into a teachable moment.

After the police came and left, and he texted the homeowner so they would know what happened, he sat down with the kids to talk with them. He gave them examples of some times when he, as their parent, needed to tell them firmly that there were certain things they could and could not do and that he needed them to pay attention to what he was saying. “Don’t run at the pool because you could slip and fall,” “Don’t throw sharp objects at your sister, even if you’re mad at her.”

In these moments I need to put myself in my children’s shoes. When they look at me with those big eyes filled with fear, I need to realize that they need me to accept them and not criticize them. To help them in the future, they need tangible examples, nothing abstract. I need to keep remembering that they are children. I want them to look back and know their parent was there for them when they made mistakes, even if he got upset at first. They have to make mistakes to learn about life.

Another idea for a teachable moment with this instance: making appropriate amends.

If possible, give children a way to make amends. In the case of setting off the alarm, maybe they need to write a letter of apology to the homeowners.

However, in each situation where children make a mistake, if they can do something to correct their mistake, they are less likely to be left with guilt or shame. They will also learn lessons about taking responsibility when a mistake is made.

Take time to process with children after everyone has calmed down.

Give children the opportunity to talk about their feelings. “That must’ve really scared you when that alarm went off! How are you feeling now?”

It is also important to make sure you reassure your children that you aren’t disappointed in them, like my friend did with his kids.

When parents communicate that they expect children to act like children, children are freer to feel safe when they have those moments of Lacking judgment, being Impulsive or Egocentric. The bond between parent and child is strengthened, both in the moment and for many years beyond that moment.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. How did your parents treat you when you made a mistake? What memories pop up? To what extent did their responses increase your self-confidence or decrease it?
  2. Think about recent times when your children made mistakes. How did you handle it? What messages did you communicate? Is there something you wish you would have done differently?
  3. What do you plan to do in the future the next time one of your children makes a mistake? How do you hope to make them feel? What will this help them to believe about themselves, about you and about your relationship?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute