The Hardest Lesson: Helping Our Young Ones Learn From Their Mistakes

Larissa Dann

How often have we found ourselves gritting our teeth when our child says:

‘It wasn’t my fault’?

‘It wasn’t my fault that the last piece of chocolate smeared itself all over my face.’

‘It wasn’t my fault that those pretty pictures suddenly appeared on the lounge chair’

'It wasn't my fault that the dishes piled up in my room - you just expect me to do everything!'

Frustrating, huh?

Then I think of my own reactions to, say, receiving a speeding fine. My first response might be to look for something (or someone) else to blame. I had been travelling for two hours in a 110km/hr zone – of course it was hard for me to remember to slow down in the 80km/hr area. And, my children were distracting me with their fighting.

Looking inside ourselves, recognising that we are flawed, that we are the only ones who are responsible for our mistake, that only we can make the changes required of ourselves, is hard.

Taking personal responsibility can be so difficult, in fact, that some people avoid being liable for their mistakes for their entire lives. (I am sure we can all name individuals who are always the victim of someone else’s inadequacy).

If adults find it difficult to take responsibility for their own actions, how much harder, then, must it be for our powerless young humans, our children?

When children say ‘I did it’ to an adult, they can face unpleasant external repercussions. They might receive a punishment, such as time-out, or other parent imposed consequence. They might be subject to belittling and judgement, or withdrawal of affection. How tempting, then, for them to blame someone, or something, else?

However, when children have to say to themselves ‘I did it’, they become solely accountable for the outcome of their actions. They have to feel the pain if their relationship with someone they care about is compromised. They have to experience the distress if they lose an opportunity because they forgot to hand in the note. 

What can we do to help our children to be personally responsible?

I teach (and endeavour to live) an approach to parenting that I think helps children (and parents) learn from within. Putting these skills into practice means I try to be conscious and intentional in my responses to situations.

With the permission of my daughter, let me tell you a story that illustrates the pain, and the gain, of learning to take responsibility for our own mistakes, and the role a parent can take in this journey.

A Story of a Teenager Learning from her Mistake

My then-13 year old had been working diligently on an assignment for the past two weeks. The assignment was complete, and due to be handed in, on-line, by 11.59pm Friday.

Our family was leaving at 8.30am the next morning (Saturday) for a weekend away.

Now, it was Friday night. My daughter had dinner, and said she’d like to watch a movie while she cleaned her room. Each time I walked past her door, I’d hear her voice, and I knew she was talking to, and texting, a friend throughout the evening, as well as watching the movie, packing her bag, and cleaning her room. As time ticked on, I reminded her (in not-so-positive parenting language), that we had to get up early the next day. We could not be late.

On Saturday morning, when I knocked and opened the door, there was my daughter, sitting on the floor, distraught. It was 7.30am.

'I forgot to put in my assignment! I got distracted by cleaning my room!'

Now, there are times when I struggle with my chosen approach to being a parent. This was one of those moments.

On the tip of my tongue were a number of Roadblocks to Communication.

  • 'I told you so!’
  • ‘That's what you get for trying to multi-task – see, it doesn’t work’.
  • ‘You'll learn from this for next time – it’s a good lesson for you'
  • ‘You should have stopped texting when I said, and gone to bed earlier. Then you would have remembered’
  • ‘Just get over it! We all make mistakes!’
  • ‘That’s it! I’m taking your phone and all other screens from you for the rest of the weekend. I obviously can’t trust you to use the phone responsibly’.

With intention, I decided now was not the time to lecture, blame, threaten or moralize.

This was despite the fact that I was really annoyed, and I felt time pressured because the whole household had to get away in under an hour.

I recognized that my stuff would not help her (or us) in this situation. Somehow, I had to separate my issues from hers. In my mind’s eye, I pictured Thomas Gordon’s model of ‘Who Owns the Problem’. This powerfully simple idea helped me silently acknowledge my frustration to myself, take a figurative step back, an inwards, silent sigh, and then to listen. Actively.

'You sound really annoyed with yourself. You worked so hard, and now it might not count. You're wondering what to do now'

Did I get a ‘Yes mum, of course, I feel so much better now’?

Well . . . no.

You’re so annoying. I know all that! Yes!’ (cue, eye roll)

Undeterred (because she was really distressed), I tried empathizing again.

This is the hardest thing to discover this morning – you put so much work into it’.

‘You think?’ Silence. ‘ Yes, I did put a lot of work into the assignment, and now it’s too late and I’ll get a bad mark’.

Together, we did some problem solving.

‘What can you do?’

After some discussion, she decided she would attach her assignment to an email and send it to her teacher. She worked out the wording to accompany the email.

This discussion took about five minutes. When she was more settled, I left to get ready. I came back to find her still on the floor, getting all her things together.

My daughter looked up at me, and with pain in her eyes, said

'The hardest thing is that this is my fault. I can't blame anyone else. I got distracted and forgot.'

To my shame, I found it hard not to wag the figurative finger. Instead, I Active Listened. Again.

'Really hard. It would be so much easier to find someone else to blame. Gutting.'

Yes’, she nodded, her head bowed.

Later, my daughter came out and said to me,

'The worst thing is, I'm disappointed with myself.'

My heart went out to her. She was just 13, and nearly every experience was new, and big.

Learning to take personal responsibility is easy to write about, easy to say. But actually having to live with your own mistakes, and the possible consequences, takes courage and fortitude. This was the foundation of resilience.

‘This is just the hardest thing. You worked so hard, and then got distracted, and you’ll find it hard to forgive yourself if your assignment doesn’t get accepted’.


Suddenly, I found myself encased in the arms of my young woman, her head resting on my shoulder.

'Thank you for being so nice. I thought you'd get angry. Thank you for being nice and not judging me'.

I hugged her back. Warmly, gratefully. With love and admiration. (Mind you, I was a tad concerned that she thought my response would be anger. I’m definitely not the perfect parent!)

The weekend was memorable. Not least, because of the depth of comfort and trust between my daughter and me. And all I had done was to spend just ten minutes of intentional interaction that avoided blame or putdowns, concentrating instead on listening and problem solving.

So, once again, I learned from my children.

I was reminded of the difficulty of having to live with our mistakes, our decisions and our choices. When I receive a speeding fine, I am the only one with the foot on the pedal. When I miss an important meeting because I did not put it in my diary, I cannot blame anyone but myself.

When my daughter suffered through her agony of self-discovery, I stood by her side. By simply listening and empathizing, I helped her help herself. I watched her grow her own self-awareness, live with her own insight.

In the ten minutes I set aside with the intent of avoiding expressing my own anger or self-righteousness, I saw my daughter mature. Suddenly, I glimpsed my future adult child - a young woman of inner strength, worth, ability, compassion, and love.

In that ten minutes, our understanding of each other, our relationship, deepened.

In that ten minutes, I was reminded of how precious, and fleeting, was my time with this child in our house, as she grows at lightening speed towards independence and maturity.

My ten minutes of listening to my young woman was an investment. I invested trust, respect, empathy, care and concern. My return was a relationship of incalculable depth, understanding, connection and warmth. And I received an inspiring glimpse of a maturing citizen. My daughter.

First published 28 May 2017

Image: Shutterstock

© Larissa Dann. 2017. All rights reserved


Hi Larissa,

I love this post because it reminds us all what we really want -- a "depth of comfort and trust" with our kids. Your utter gratitude shines through. Thank you for writing! Will be sharing. xo

Thank you so much - I am very glad to hear that you enjoyed the message this post brought.

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