PLEASE, LET YOUR CHILD BE WRONG
During my years as a school psychologist I’ve worked with thousands of families. I often counseled the children who had some kind of problem or who had made some kind of mistake. Many wise parents cooperated with the school and supported the consequences, sometimes with reservations about the seriousness of the situation and sometimes with reservations about the consequences. But they did not rob the child of the experience of accepting responsibility for a bad choice. They allowed the child to incorporate into their thinking the wonderful deterrent value of consequences
I’ve also observed kids who had a very hard time admitting their mistakes. The pressures in society seem to have increased this pattern. Often the parents of these children also had elaborate excuses for why the child was not responsible -- It was the other child’s idea, they thought they were doing right, the teacher is biased, they hadn’t eaten breakfast. The list was long and varied, but what was consistent was the need for the child to be perfect or the need for the parent to have them be seen as faultless. In some cases, the parent had their own experience of feeling that they had been treated unfairly and this added to the dynamic.
In one situation I recounted to a teacher the immediate confession of a fifth grade girl who had only been partly involved in some mischief. The teacher’s response, “She must really trust the world.” It made me think about this child and others who are able to acknowledge their errors and be honest. This girl has had her share of trips to the principal’s office, but she has generally been quite honest. Moreover, her parents have supported the school and backed up the consequences. Usually these are fairly mild ones -- missing recess, writing sorry notes or little essays about why their infraction was a bad idea. The teacher’s comment was profound. Not only did she trust the world, she trusted the unconditional love of her parents, annoyed and upset as they might be.
I worry about children who have had the opposite experience. In the principal’s office, they were the ones who came up with excuses or stories that minimized their role in a situation. And when the parents got the note that their daughter or son would miss a few days of recess or would need to do the “better judgment” essay, the phone would ring and the excuses and qualifications would start again.
For those children I have wondered, “Is being imperfect so forbidden? Is being seen as having done something dumb or naughty so difficult to accept?” My worries for those children are two fold. One is that they will be able, with the help of parents, to wriggle out of the consequences and be robbed of that valuable deterrent potential of those consequences. They will always get away with it and will thus take bigger risks and make bigger mistakes. My other worry is that unlike the girl earlier described, they do not trust the world. Or they do not trust the acceptance they will find in their own homes if they tell the truth and accept responsibility. A sadder worry I believe.
We all want our children to be treated fairly, so the instinct to be their defense attorney can be powerful. But children are impulsive and egocentric little creature and even wonderful kids can do dumb things. We do them no service to defend against being ac- countable.
So let your child be wrong, even if it was “the other child’s idea” or if “they only did it once and the others did it twice.” Help them understand that con- sequences also apply for following a bad idea or for doing even part of it.
It’s a gift to a child to disapprove of what they have done and to still love them. It’s important to separate approval and love and to never make them think they must be perfect to earn the latter.