Helping children learn to repair and recover after mistakes


Miriam, an impulsive 6-year-old, is often rude to her parents. Yet, after they repeatedly send her to her room to “teach her to be more respectful,” she is sullen and downcast, not kinder and more considerate.

Jacob is a hot-headed 10-year-old who often blows up at his siblings. “You shouldn’t let them bother you,” his mother advises. While Jacob’s temper is slowly improving, his relationship with his brothers is not.

Fourteen-year-old Rebecca has learning disabilities and is often forgetful. When her exhausted mother complains, “You make more work for me than the rest of the family combined!” Rebecca’s face flushes, and she avoids her family.

While Miriam, Jacob and Rebecca are good children who work hard to overcome their challenges, they frequently make mistakes. Luckily, they have good parents who are teaching them to be more polite, calmer and better organized. Still, the many corrections and criticisms they receive lead them to believe, “I’m not good enough.”

At the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), a nonprofit educational organization based in Kensington, parents learn why their methods of correction and discipline, which seem so logical, often don’t work. In classes and workshops at PEP, they learn how a sense of inadequacy and shame holds children back, making it harder to change their behavior and harming their relationships as well as their self-confidence.

The theoretical underpinning of positive parenting goes back to Alfred Adler, an Austrian Jew who was one of the founders of the psychoanalytic movement in Vienna in the early 20th century. Adler emphasized the value of teaching children how to maintain or restore their self-confidence — and their relationships with others — by learning to handle mistakes courageously, not fearfully.

Children are usually taught that responsibility means avoiding mistakes in the first place. Giving a child the opportunity to make amends and repair damage after a mistake actually provides a more meaningful lesson. A single experience of acknowledging the wrong and taking action to make it right again can teach a child more about responsibility than a hundred reminders to avoid making the mistake.

In addition, repairing mistakes gives children the means to restore their sense of dignity and self-worth. It’s the difference between “I messed up again, I’m always getting it wrong” and “I know I’m not perfect, but when I do something wrong I always do what I can to make it right again.”

How can parents and teachers help children learn how to make it right again after they do something wrong?  Here are some examples:

In response to Miriam’s rudeness, her father calmly ends the conversation. Later, when she asks him for a story, he says, “First, we need to talk about something. You called me a bad name, and that’s not OK.”  “Oh, Daddy, I didn’t mean it,” she responds. “Thanks, Miriam. Mean words hurt. After you say something wrong, it’s important to do something show the other person that you really do care.”

Jacob complains that his brothers won’t play with him. “They’re still mad,” his babysitter says. “What could you do to show them you’re sorry?” “Can I make popcorn?” Jacob asks. “They might like a snack. I want to show them I’m sorry I wrecked their fort, and I’m ready to be nice again.”

Rebecca’s mother speaks quietly to her. “It took me 30 minutes to make that extra trip to get your school supplies. Would you be willing to repay me the time and do a few of my chores tomorrow?” “Sure,” Rebecca says, with relief. “I felt so bad about causing you trouble. Making it up to you makes me feel better.”

Children usually regret their mistakes, and learning how to make things right again helps restore their sense of self-worth, responsibility and connection with others.  Because no one, young or old, can avoid making mistakes, these lessons will serve them long past childhood.

Emory Luce Baldwin is a family therapist and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program. To view PEP’s class schedule, visit

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