Learning to Make Wrong Into Right


Dear Emory,

I have two kids who are six and eight years old.  Every time they do something wrong, they tell me, “I won’t do it again.”  But, yes, you guessed it, the same or similar behaviors happen again…and again…and again.  They really don’t seem interested in learning how not to repeat the mistake and they don’t take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Frankly, I feel like they are saying, “I’ll never do it again,” just to get me off their backs.  But clearly they aren’t listening to me.  I don’t like to get angry and yell, but what else can I do?

— “At a Loss on Larch”

Dear “Loss,”

When you see your child making a mistake and ask him to stop or change his behavior–that is the first step.  “I’ll never do it again,” is the beginning, not the end, of learning from mistakes and misbehavior.  The next time your child says that to you, try responding with,

“Great!  Glad to hear it!  So what is your plan for doing it differently next time?”

If this is the first time your child has heard you ask this question, be prepared for a blank look and maybe even a repeated promise,

“I just said, “I’ll never do it again!”

So ask for some specifics in an encouraging way:

“I’m glad to hear we are on the same page.”

Double check your understanding:

“No balls will be thrown inside the house.”

And help your child take his learning to the next step or responsibility.

“How do you plan to remember this important agreement?”

“Ummm, maybe I could put up a sign?”

Preventing future mistakes and misbehavior is one part of the solution over the long term.  Mistakes can also create a situation that needs to be fixed here and now.  Maybe a lamp has been knocked over and broken.  Or a forgotten lunch is rotting in the bottom of the back pack.  Even relationships get hurt and repairs need to be made.

“I understand that you will not be taking money from my wallet again.  But the trust between us has been damaged, and I’d like to ask you to work with me on that, too.”

Helping a child learn from her mistakes means inviting her to find ways to recover, repair, replace, and/or restore what has been wronged.  Inviting a child to work out a fair and reasonable way to fix her mistakes offers her the chance to be accountable for her own actions.  Since your child is imperfect like all of us, she will keep on making mistakes throughout her life.  Her mistakes and misbehavior today are excellent opportunities for her to learn how to recover her dignity and act responsibly whenever she makes a mistakes or does something wrong in the future.

Sometimes righting a wrong means literally repairing what has been broken or set awry.

“Matthew, the papers and magazines need to be put back on the table.”

At other times, a child may need to be invited to make a longer term investment to repair a larger mistake.  Even so, this is not punishment to make him “feel bad.”  It is a learning experience designed to help your child “feel better” by giving him the opportunity to rebuild his dignity and sense of self-worth and right the scales of justice he knocked askew.

“I appreciate that you are writing a letter of apology for your teacher, Gillian.  Our family is also out $100 for the rest of the classes we paid for, since you were asked to leave the gymnastics school.  What would you be willing to do to work and repay the family, little by little?”

We parents are so darn good at pointing out a child’s mistakes to her, and showing her the error of her ways.  In the process, we often metaphorically “show the child to the door,” even saying, “You are getting a time out/grounded/staying home/never going there again!”  But then what?

The next part of the story happens when a parent helps the child learn from the experience of his or her mistake by encouraging him to take responsibility for preventing the mistake next time and repairing the harm caused by the mistake.  This is how a parent shows the child where the door is—not to go out but to come back in again with dignity and a sense of self-worth.

“You made a mistake, how would you like to fix it?”

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: www.emorylucebaldwin.com