Tag Archives: responsibility

9 ways to teach kids to own their mistakes

Tough luck.

You made your bed; now you have to lie in it.

What goes around, comes around.

It’s what we say to people who get themselves into trouble through their own stupidity. It’s what we think when somebody has to suffer a little to learn responsibility.

But it’s hard to do with your own kids. At least it has been for me.

When my kid has forgotten a paper on the printer, sometimes, I’ve run it over to school.

When he’s forgotten his lunch, I’ve brought it to him.

When he’s remembered that he needed poster board for a project the next day, I’ve gone to the store to buy it.

When he’s given me a paper to edit at 10 pm the night before it’s due, I’ve edited it.

I’ve done all those things sometimes. And sometimes, I’ve said Tough luck. Plan ahead next time.

And of course, there’s the classic (usable in nearly every parenting scenario): I’m sorry, the world doesn’t revolve around you.

As parents, we all navigate the tension between teaching responsibility (which is often learned through failure) and showing encouragement and support. I want my children to know they can always count on me–I’m always in their corner. But I also know that if I bail them out of situations or if I wage war on their behalf over some difficulty, they will stop thinking for themselves, and I will become a slave to their forgetfulness and entitlement.

So how do you manage this conundrum? (I’m really asking!) Here are some ideas:

  1. Teach them to think ahead. What do you need for school tomorrow? What will you need for the trip? Show them how to work off a list rather than their faultless memories. Also give them ideas about how/where to get something if they find out they don’t have what they need.
  2. Teach them to be resourceful. To problem-solve. How can I fix my mistake on my own? Whose advice can I get? This is a better alternative to Who can fix this for me? If it’s note-card day in English class (and they don’t have notecards), let them spend their own money on 3×5 cards at the school store or bum cards off somebody else. (And then furiously write out the information.) But don’t bring them notecards.
  3. Teach them to live with imperfection. This isn’t the end of the world. What can you do better the next time? Raising children who don’t suffer from their mistakes creates perfectionistic adults who demand cooperation from everyone else and fall to pieces when life doesn’t work out according to their wishes. Do your kids a solid and teach them that life is about living with disappointment and still choosing joy. This factors into relationships, trials, work ethic, and the basic unpredictability of the human existence.
  4. Teach them to accept failures with integrity. I’m sorry, I didn’t complete the assignment. I’m sorry I was late; I didn’t plan ahead. Character is built by admitting and owning fault. If your kid is late to practice, he won’t start in the game. Instead of emailing the coach about the heavy traffic, let your child feel the pain of not starting in the game. Heavy traffic is not a viable excuse, but starting earlier next time is. If kids learn to make excuses for everything they don’t do correctly, they will never learn to do things the right way. And if perfection and acceptance are their highest goals, they will quickly learn to cheat the system: copy someone else’s homework, have someone clock in for them at work, plagiarize the paper. They will certainly not learn integrity.
  5. Teach them to prayGod, what can I learn here? What are You teaching me? Please help me be more like You. Learning to lean on God is accepting the discipleship process. Kids should learn early that spiritual growth hurts. Teaching them to make last-minute Get-me-out-of-here prayers sets them up to feel rejection from God because they will view Him as their personal genie, who must answer their panicky requests every time they rub his lamp. (He usually won’t bail us out of trouble; after all, He is the perfect parent.) Teach your children to value God’s parenting, not resent His correction.

Without failures, children will become lazy, dependent, and entitled. So as parents, we have to do a few difficult things:

  1. Step back and let them fail. The tension here is the risk involved. Can he afford to fail the paper, the project, the class? Can she afford to lose her position on the squad or in the orchestra? Can they afford not to? You will have to decide; there are exceptions to every situation, but you must carefully weigh the outcomes to your assistance. Most of the time, they can afford to fail because the results are far more beneficial.
  2. Show them that assistance can be expensive. If they can’t afford to fail, then charge them for help, or make them pay for someone else’s help. Tutors run $50-60/hour. If they’re failing a class due to irresponsibility, then making your kid pay for a tutor is a good solution. I have been known to deduct money from allowances every time I had to drive to school with a book, paper, lunch, or other forgotten item. My time is worth something; they should know that.
  3. Love and encourage them through the failing. You can pray over them, sit at the kitchen table, and provide snacks while they labor late into the night on the paper they didn’t write earlier. You can hug and help them try again. Yes, loving can sometimes be tortuous for parents. And you can also go to bed and let them suffer alone. Your choice because it’s not your problem. 
  4. Model resiliency and responsibility in your own life. Naturally, I can’t expect from my kids what I don’t do myself. If they never hear me apologize or never see me staying up late to finish work (without the blame-shifting to someone else), they won’t value responsible living. They will assume that when other people mess up your life, and you deserve to complain or get angry about it.

The secret to responsibility is ownership. One of the hardest aspects of mothering for me is allowing my kids to own their decisions, especially when I know they’re making poor choices. Transferring ownership to your kids is a gradual and age-appropriate process, but it should begin early and grow over time.

Eventually, you want to work your way into being a wise counselor whom they want to approach. You want them to know that you pray for them and love them regardless of their choices. But you won’t fix things for them. My goal as a Christian parent is to direct them toward the only Person who can fix things. My goal is for my kids to understand their own human condition (a mess) and God’s response to them (grace). If they get that concept, they will turn to God for everything, instead of looking to someone else or themselves.


image by Petr Kratochvil