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What owning up to our mistakes teaches our children

What owning up to our mistakes teaches our children


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SALT LAKE CITY — While dining in a Chicago restaurant, I learned the life story of our waiter.

His father owned a lucrative business for many years but went bankrupt. He was not legally obligated to pay back his debts, but this elderly waiter told us how he witnessed his father sacrifice the rest of his life to pay his creditors and die with a peaceful conscience.

How we 'do-do' it wrong

It's hard to admit to our mistakes and make reparation. Most adults in leadership positions, whether in the workplace or as the head of the home, have the responsibility of maintaining control.

We are the ones in charge, so all those under us need to trust our judgment. Therefore, we tend to elevate our status to the "we can do no wrong" level so as to not lose the confidence of others.

Scientists call this cognitive dissonance: the tension you feel when you are mentally out of balance. Non-scientists, namely children, call this hypocrisy.

Forbes magazine argues this is a dangerous belief because "it backs a leader into defending their poor choices, even when they themselves have come to recognize they were wrong." The truth is we do do wrong! And that gets us in plenty of do-do when we try to cover it up. Scientists call this cognitive dissonance: the tension you feel when you are mentally out of balance. Non-scientists, namely children, call this hypocrisy. It's when our actions are in conflict with what we know to be wrong.

For example, I know eating too much cake is bad for me, but I just can't resist another piece, and another, until it's gone. As a result, I'm internally conflicted with a stomachache to boot.

As parents, we make mistakes all the time, but we make it worse when we lie about it: "No, I didn't eat all your Halloween candy." We cover it up because we crave cognitive consonance, or balance again in the universe (dad = Superman). We don't want our children to know we have trouble controlling our passions. We want them to still look up to us on the parental pedestal (the one use used to climb on to reach the candy up in the cupboard).

Chances are, however, that our hypocrisy will be discovered sooner or later, and we will fall — and fall hard. It will be difficult to regain our child's trust.

The 3 benefits of owning up

The healthy way to create consonance again is not to justify or lie, but to admit our mistakes: to come clean. When our children hear and see us owning up to our mistakes they learn:

  1. No one is perfect, and that's a good thing.A comforting thought is "no one is perfect ... that's why pencils have erasers." Children need to see that we are trying to do our best, but when we slip up that's OK. Just apologize (sincerely) and get on with it. Rather than wringing our hands and becoming paralyzed with perfectionism, making a mistake once in a while reminds us we are human and allows others to make mistakes too. What a relief! You mean, you're not perfect either?
  2. Mistakes are the tutors for growth. Authors Tavris and Aronson said, “Learn to see mistakes not as terrible personal failings to be denied or justified, but as inevitable aspects of life that help us grow, and grow up.” It reminds me of a elementary school teacher who would do something wrong, and in front of her students she would chirp, "Oops! I made a mistake," and then fix it in their view. She taught the children that the classroom is a safe place to experiment, take risks, and learn from their mistakes. A home can provide the same environment. Imagine being the mom of Thomas Edison, who replied when asked about the failure of creating the light bulb: "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways it won't work."
  3. To take responsibility for our actions. We see less and less of taking responsibility from leaders in businesses, politics and in communities. If they do, it's with a vague "mistakes were made." We need more role models who state, "I did that and I take full responsibility. I will do whatever it takes to make it right." Honesty. How refreshing. What better lesson can we teach our children than shouldering up to the consequences of our actions? The best part of a parent taking responsibility is when a child has the opportunity to watch how the parent goes about making it right. That's where the real work is done. "Oh, boy. I just ran over a sprinkler head with the car. I'm going to need to get a new part and install it tomorrow." Then enjoy taking the time to teach your child how to install a new sprinkler head.

Honest effort after an honest mistake engenders trust and esteem from our children.

The waiter in the Chicago restaurant? I've never been so touched at the apparent admiration a son had for his father. Even in his advanced years, he was proud to wait tables for a living, feeling his father's approval at every table.


Main image: Andrew Lever /

Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker and professor at Utah Valley University. Visit her website, where she writes articles on the joys, challenges and power of parenting.

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