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Is It Wrong to Say, “That’s Wrong”?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Most of us like Right Answers. Knowing the right answers got us where we are today – pretty successful grownups who feel competent most of the time. We are good at knowing things and we feel in some ways it’s our mission to make sure our children know things too. We like it when our kids give us the right answers. We don’t like it so much when our kids are wrong.

Is that a problem? If we correct children, and make them repeat the Right Answer, even tell them they’ve given us a Wrong Answer, is that itself the wrong thing to do?

Yes. The answer is yes. It’s wrong to say, “That’s wrong.” Here’s why.

Children have an awful lot to learn before they leave our care and go out into the big wide world, even if we’re only talking about heading off to kindergarten. Learning all that stuff takes quite a bit of effort and a large amount of courage. A person has to be persistent. A person has to feel she’s making progress. All of this is undermined if a grownup is hanging around criticizing.

When an adult tells a child, “That’s wrong,” the message received is, “You’re incompetent. You’re incapable. You’re dumb.” Certainly the grownup doesn’t mean all this. The grownup only means to point out that an answer or a thought was wrong. But the vulnerable child hears an indictment. She hears a message that tells her she’s not good enough.

The child also hears that it’s safer to not think. It’s safer to wait for someone to tell him the Right Answer so he can just memorize it. It’s safer to be passive, to be dumb about learning. This is the child who is always asking if the teacher likes his paper. This is the child who watches others to see what they’re doing before he dares to try something himself. This is the child who doesn’t bother to think but waits until the Right Answer is spoken by someone else.

When we tell children their ideas are wrong, we make learning a guessing game, not an exercise in thinking. Guess what the right answer is, we’re saying. If you’re lucky or if you’re smart, you’ll guess right. If you’re unlucky or if you’re stupid, you’ll guess wrong. It should be obvious that this isn’t fair. This doesn’t contribute to a love of learning. Telling children they’re wrong when they venture an idea stops their brains.

The problem, of course, is that we adults love the Right Answer. Wrong answers give us the willies. We hate how a wrong answer lingers in the air, infecting everyone. What if the child continues to think a wrong thought? What if his brother or sister agrees with a wrong idea?

We could calm down. Our anxiety is all about us and our feelings, not about the children and theirs. Eventually, the truth will become apparent and children will come round to what we think is “right.” Or, maybe, they will stumble on a new truth and we’ll be forced to agree with them. Either way is okay. The big issue isn’t landing on a question’s one right answer.

The big issue is thinking about questions at all.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.