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How To React When Your Child Makes a Mistake

Lori Freson


A colleague recently shared a story with me about her school-age son. He was with his soccer team, eating in a restaurant after a game. When his meal came, he reached for the ketchup and poured it all over his mini corn dogs. Only, it wasn’t ketchup…it was hot sauce. His meal was ruined, and he didn’t know what to do. One parent ostracized him, wondering how he could have been so stupid as to not notice that the bottle was hot sauce rather than ketchup. Some told him to just scrape it off. Other kids offered him some of their food to share, since he clearly wasn’t going to eat his.

But then one parent had the brilliant idea of having the boy go back to the counter and explain the mistake he made, then ask if would be possible to get a new order. He did, and he got a fresh order of corn dogs. Problem solved.

How would you have handled the above example? Would you encourage your child to be assertive and ask for help, or would you teach him to just stay silent and pay more attention next time? What about if your child makes other types of mistakes?

I believe there are four essential components to teach your children when they make mistakes.

  1. Assertiveness: Teach your child to speak up and ask for the help they need. Sometimes the remedy to the situation is quite simple, as in the above example. Other times, it may be more challenging, but learning to speak up will prove to be an important trait as they grow into adulthood.
  2. Responsibility: Your child must be taught that everyone makes mistakes and messes up sometimes. They do not need to be ashamed, but they do need to be honest and own up when they’ve made mistakes. Nobody likes the person who is always blaming other people or circumstances for the decisions they actually made.
  3. Repair: When a mistake is made, there is almost always a way to repair the so-called damage. This is where the growth, learning and eventual maturity come in to play. Teach your children to make things right.
  4. Consequences: Some instances will automatically come with natural consequences, which are really important. When one sees what happened as a result of a particular mistake, they can learn and grow and hopefully not make that same mistake again. Other times, as parents, you may have to give a meaningful and appropriate consequence, such as loss of a privilege or something fitting for the action.

I’d like to share a few different types of examples to help you understand these components. When my stepson was young, we were at another family’s house, and he was playing around with their pool thermometer. He threw it, and it broke it. The glass went everywhere. So, what did I do? First, I had him personally apologize to the homeowner and take responsibility for his actions. Next, I told him he would have to replace it. He told the homeowner something like, “I’m so sorry I broke your thermometer. I should not have thrown it. I will make sure to replace it for you.” Lastly, I gave him jobs to do around the house to earn the money it would cost to purchase the new thermometer.

Another example of a mistake your child is likely to make would be when they are older and driving a car. Obviously, you will teach them to pull over after an accident, ask if everyone is ok, exchange information, and so on. But when they back into a pole in the school parking lot, how will you handle that? Hopefully, you will teach them to come to you and announce they made a mistake, admit it was their fault (rather than blaming the pole), discuss how it’s going to get fixed, and have them pay for it themselves somehow, even if they just earn the money doing chores around the house.

Your child will also certainly make mistakes at school. They will forget to turn in a homework assignment or maybe even get caught cheating. It’s not the end of the world, if they learn something from it and grow. If you can teach them to speak up, own it, talk with the teacher or principal about fixing it, and learn to handle the consequences of their own actions, chances are they won’t continue to make the same mistakes over and over.

However, if you allow them to lie about it, blame others, or get out of dealing with unpleasant consequences, you are doing them a disservice in the long run. Out in the grown-up real world, Mommy and Daddy will not be there to rescue them. Teach your child, but don’t rescue them.

There is nothing harder as a parent than to watch your child suffer, even if it is a result of their own actions. They will make mistakes in relationships, which could lead to heartbreak. They will make mistakes in school, which could lead to a bad grade. They will break things and they will trash up their car. They will pour hot sauce on their food or forget to order without that sauce they don’t like. And all of this will be normal and healthy. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you handle it that makes all the difference in the world.


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Lori Freson

Lori Freson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California. She has been working in the mental health field since 1997, and has been a licensed therapist since 2002. Lori currently works in her own thriving private practice in Encino and Sherman Oaks, where she serves the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles areas.