How to Teach Your Kids to Own Their Mistakes
One day I asked my daughter Drew, who was 8 at the time, a seemingly innocuous question: “Why’d you leave the car door open?”
“Because … I … well,” she began, huffing and gesticulating like a guest on Dr. Phil. “It’s just that … I mean … I … Blair said she was going to shut it.” However, Drew failed to note the one flaw in her explanation: Her older sister hadn’t even been in the car.
During the past several months, finger-pointing like that had become Drew’s default response. No matter what the infraction—dirty clothes left on her bedroom floor, a missed spelling word, a lost sneaker—it always seemed to be someone else’s fault. Always. But this incident in the car had raised her blame game to a new level. What was next? Accusing her second cousin in Fort Worth? Our goldfish Flounder?
It was time for a little chat. “Honey,” I said, squatting to Drew’s level and touching her gently on the arm. “You need to take responsibility for your actions.” She stared into my eyes, like a dog that you swear understands every one of your words when what he’s actually hearing is blah blah blah. I tried again. “You need to own up to your mistakes.” Again with the stare. Blah blah. “You must be personally accountable.” Blah. These directives were simply too abstract for Drew to process. I would have had better luck trying to explain the Pythagorean theorem to her. In French.
Kids start making excuses as soon as they can form sentences, and I totally understand why: to avoid getting into trouble, feeling embarrassed, or having someone think badly of them. “They’re wary of any negative reaction,” says Betsy Brown Braun, a child-development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades, California, and author of You’re Not the Boss of Me. “More than anything, they want you to be happy with them.”
Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean you should let those excuses slide. Kids who get into the habit of passing the buck can turn into adults who lack confidence, won’t take risks, and can’t be trusted. What’s more, they can spawn a crew of blame shifters. A recent Stanford study found that blaming others is contagious: Someone who sees another person ditching responsibility is more likely to do the same. My home was certainly feeling the effect. Drew’s little sister, Camille, who was only 4, had recently declared she didn’t clean up the crayons she was using because “they belong to Blair and Drew.” Clearly, it was time to change Drew’s ways, not to mention the bad habits being adopted by her sister.
When I asked a bunch of wise experts for advice, they prepared me for the fact that teaching my kids to accept responsibility for their actions was going to take work. I delved deeper, tried out what I’d learned, and came up with this five-step plan.
Step 1: Back Off.
Virtually every waking moment, kids have someone telling them what to do. Parents. Teachers. Coaches. And that’s one of the things that makes them blamers, says San Francisco–based sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness. “Because every thought is scripted for them, children don’t realize that they’re the ones controlling their behavior.” So before they can start “owning it,” kids need to learn first that they truly are masters of their universe. To do that, you have to bite your tongue and stop giving them instructions all the time. (“Put on your coat.” “Finish your homework.” “Tell Grandma ‘thank you.’ ”) This will let them start thinking for themselves.
I had that in mind late one evening when I noticed my girls had forgotten to close the garage door after putting their bikes away. Instead of saying, “Go shut the garage door,” I pointed in the direction of the infraction and tried out the go-to phrase I’d learned from Dr. Carter: “What’s wrong with this picture?” Next thing I knew, all three of them were rummaging through drawers for flashlights and trudging out to the garage. Soon, I heard the door slam down, and a beaming Drew ran back in and announced, “I did it!”
The moment was so out of character that I almost forgot how to follow up. Luckily, I mustered a reinforcing takeaway lesson: “Yes, Drew, you did it! You saw that you guys left the door open, and even though you were scared to go back out into the dark, you solved the problem by finding flashlights and giving them to your sisters so all of you could get the job done as a team.”
Step 2: Narrate your own decisions.
Adults make a gazillion choices every day: Should I get up or hit snooze? Should I answer my phone or send it to voicemail? Should I buy those shoes or wait until they’re on sale? But because they happen in our head, our kids don’t realize all that goes into making even small decisions. And that means we’re not modeling how to come up with good choices. “Explaining why you make them lets your child absorb your thought process,” says Braun.
I’m a chronic “talk to my self-er,” so I found it easy to externalize my decision making: “If I have toast for breakfast, I’ll be starving in an hour, so I’ll eat eggs instead.” But it took real effort to let my kids think through their own decisions in the same way. When Camille wanted to wear flip-flops on a 40-degree day, I tried to guide her.
ME: It’s pretty cold out there. Do flip-flops keep your feet warm?
ME: Are there other shoes that might keep your feet warmer?
CAMILLE: Yes. But I’m wearing these.
ME (to myself): I can’t believe I’m saying this, but ...
ME (to Camille): Okay.
Fifteen minutes later, Camille was back inside, crying. “My feet are cold,” she said. When I asked her why, she yelled, “Because it’s cold!” I pushed: “But why are your feet cold?” “These shoes,” she said, flicking off the flip-flops. Mission accomplished—I had let her decide and learn from her mistake.
Step 3: Stop saving the day.
When our kid forgets his homework, we bring it to school. When he neglects to clean up the living room, we often put his toys away. If he argues with a friend over who gets the swing, we might intervene with a “turn-taking” strategy. Good intentions, yes, but not great parenting. “If you correct their mistakes and solve their problems, kids never learn how to do it themselves,” says Dr. Carter. They need to “blow it” every once in a while—and suffer the consequences. It lets them see that goof-ups aren’t the end of the world and that they can figure out how to fix them.
One day at school drop-off, Blair turned to me and exclaimed in horror, “I left my book at home!” I gave her a “that stinks” look, then put up my hands and shrugged my shoulders, the universal symbol for “I’m not going home to get it for you.” She slammed her foot on the pavement and growled a little before stomping all the way to class. But before bed that night, she said—totally unsolicited—“I’m going to put my book by my backpack every night so I don’t forget it again.” Smart idea, girlfriend.
Step 4: Plead guilty.
Let’s be honest: We all try to wiggle out of acknowledging when we haven’t behaved perfectly. When I was driving the kids to soccer recently, someone honked at me for not using my turn signal. Rather than just saying, “Oops, I forgot to signal,” I shouted, “Can you believe that total dorkhead leaning on his horn as if I ran him off the road? I mean, seriously!”
Two simple words can help turn you from a negative role model into a positive one: “My bad.” You were late picking them up from piano lessons? “My bad.” You forgot to pay them their allowance? “My bad.” You neglected to make a reservation for date night and got shut out of your favorite place? “My bad.” (Yup, kids listen to conversations with your partner too.)
Whatever term you choose to accept responsibility—“my mistake,” “my fault,” “I’m sorry”—use it without adding a qualifier, says family therapist Susan Stiffelman, author of Parenting Without Power Struggles. “It was my fault that I lost my cool and yelled at you, but you weren’t listening to me” is not exactly holding yourself accountable. “Including ‘but’ implicates someone else and gives your kids a template for how to transfer blame,” says Stiffelman.
Step 5: Be a coach.
Once kids begin to recognize the basics of responsibility, you can begin to call out their finger-pointing, says John G. Miller, coauthor of Raising Accountable Kids. His advice is simple: Give each child a second chance, and a third, and even a fourth to not blame someone else.
Last night, I tried this approach with Drew, who hadn’t cleared the dishes. When I motioned toward the dining room table and asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?” she claimed she hadn’t done her chore because Blair hadn’t set the table, “which is her job.”
“Hold on there, Drew,” I said in my best Wild West sheriff voice to diffuse her ire. “Let’s try that again.”
“It’s not fair!” Drew yelled, undiffused.
“Maybe not,” I said (without any ire myself). “But can you explain it to me again? What’s wrong with this picture?”
“I didn’t clear the dishes,” she announced. “But Blair … ” Then she stopped and said something that was truly surprising: “My bad.”
This story originally appeared in Parents magazine as “Mess Up, Fess Up.”