Teaching children to say “sorry”– Part 2– how to treat mistakes

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Born for Brilliance parent coach

In the next post, I will share more specific suggestions about how to help your child learn to apologize when she really ought to.  In this post, I will address the situation in which a child apologizes for making a minor mistake.


Question:  My 3 year old daughter doesn’t always want to apologize when she ought to, so I don’t push her.  I hope that she will be able to apologize genuinely one of these days.  But she does say “I’m sorry” for minor mistakes, when it’s not really necessary to apologize—like getting the names of colors or animals wrong.  Should I correct her on this or is she just exploring the usage of the word sorry?” 

Answer:  Thank you for your question!

It’s easy to understand that a 3 year old would think that’s what “I’m sorry” is for—oops, that’s not yellow—that’s green! Or oops, I spilled my milk! Or  I put that toy back in the wrong place.  I wouldn’t exactly “correct” that mistaken usage of the word, because it is understandable and isn’t truly inappropriate. 

But I understand that you want your child to learn that it’s not necessary to apologize for minor mistakes. So, I want to talk about how our culture treats mistakes.  

Think about what we learned in school about mistakes:

  • There is one right answer, generally, out of 2 – 4 possibilities
  • Mistakes will be highlighted and punished
  • Mistakes are bad and embarrassing and it’s best to avoid them
  • If you make a mistake, it’s best to try to cover it up 

For the most part, we all grew up learning to try to avoid mistakes – or to hide them.  Trevor Eisler writes in his book Montessori Madness about a day when he pooped his pants in the third grade.  Not wanting to be found out for this embarrassing mistake, he spent the whole day standing near the least popular child all day, trying to get everyone to believe it was that child who pooped his pants. 

It is a big problem when our culture punishes mistakes!  No one can grow and thrive if they are too avoidant of mistakes.  Businesses can’t grow and thrive in a mistake-phobic culture either.  

We can’t become skilled at anything if we can’t tolerate making mistakes.  And it can cause us to do some unconstructive things, like Trevor encouraging people to blame his poor fellow student for the poop smell!

An example from my life is dropping out of music, partly because of a discomfort with mistakes.  I had been playing clarinet since 4th grade, and had developed enough skill to be selected for state level bands, to receive a music scholarship to college, and to be accepted into the top undergraduate band and by one of the top clarinet teachers in the university.  Yet, the more skilled I became, the more I was aware of every little mistake I made.  I couldn’t cope with auditions as I became increasingly worried about my mistakes and my fear of mistakes led me to drop out of music before my second year band audition, and only came back to music through singing in recent years.

Maybe you can think of something you used to love, but you quit doing it because it got harder and you were making mistakes.

On the other hand, if you think of anything you are really skilled at now (e.g. skiing, playing pool, fixing motorcycles, learning algebra, etcetera!), you can see that you had to be willing to learn from your mistakes along the way.  People only become really skilled at something they’re willing to work at, even though they make mistakes along the way.

So, if you’re a parent or caregiver of young children and you grew up trained to avoid or hide mistakes, what can you do to inoculate your child against this mistake-phobic culture?

  1. Model comfort with your own errors. Become aware of your own discomfort with mistakes and work to react differently.  Be conscious of how you react to your own mistakes and stop demonstrating shame or trying to pretend you didn’t make a mistake. Acknowledge your mistakes without making a huge deal out of them.  Oh, I wasn’t watching what I was doing and I spilled my coffee.  I’m going to clean that up.  In that way, you acknowledge the mistake, act like it’s not a big deal, and correct it.  Becoming more comfortable with your own errors will help you continue to grow in your life, and it will help your child learn not to fear mistakes.
  1. Model comfort with your child’s errors. When they’re young, children are very bright and motivated to learn– but they are also slow and uncoordinated.  Think about a baby learning to walk.  They will figure out on their own how they need to change things so they can walk more fluently– they need to hold on, go slower, change how they shift their weight, etc.  No matter how many times they fall, they keep getting up and trying again– because they are motivated to learn this and they haven’t learned that mistakes are bad.  If adults  interrupt and prevent every error, this just teaches the child that adults don’t like them making mistakes—which can inadvertently teach them to stop trying or to give up when a task is difficult.  And imagine what effect that will have on their learning and development!
  1. Allow your child to learn from their own mistakes. When your child falls, spills, or takes 20 minutes doing something you can do in 20 seconds, give them time and space to learn from their own experience.  In the first few years, children are absolutely driven to try to do what others can do—they don’t need any external motivation.  Isn’t internal motivation and drive to learn something you want to nurture in your child?  You can support their internal motivation to learn by letting them learn from their own mistakes, as much as possible.  
  1. Help just enough so that they can do things with greater independence. Helping “just enough” might involve getting materials that fit the child’s hands, putting materials within the child’s reach, and showing the child patiently what the sequence of steps is for the task.  When a 15 month old child tries to carry a glass of water to the table, they may spill.  You can help just enough  by giving them a small glass that fits their hands, and not filling the glass too full.  You can help just enough by modeling how to carry your glass using both hands, knowing your child is less likely to spill if they use both hands.  If you give them a small pitcher and a table that fits their height, they can even pour their own water in their glass!  When you let them try to do things and learn from the experience, even when they are slow, uncoordinated and making mistakes, you are helping just enough and supporting their internal drives to learn.  Helping too much would be doing everything for them when they are increasingly capable and interested in doing things for themselves.

When we over-react to children’s mistakes, “fixing” the environment after they’ve been in it, or doing a lot of things for young children that they are motivated to do for themselves, we may be communicating many unintentional and unhelpful messages to the child, i.e.:

  1. I don’t like it when you do things for yourself – I prefer you just ask me for help
  2. You sure are slow and uncoordinated and make a mess– I don’t like it when you can’t do things perfectly—just let me do it
  3. I don’t have time for you to do things for yourself—I am in a hurry

Wouldn’t it be great to NOT pass on some of the more unconstructive attitudes we were raised with?  To ensure that the attitude that mistakes are bad and should be avoided stops with this generation? 

So, finally, in answer to the question “What shall I do when my 3 year old says sorry for making a minor mistake?” 

As you increasingly behave as though it’s normal for everyone who is growing and learning to make many mistakes every day, you can just insert a factual observation here, “Oh, you said blue, but that’s green,” in a very casual, it’s-no-big-deal tone.  All you’re doing is commenting on something you observed, without conveying a negative judgment about either the color mistake or about the somewhat mistaken use of the word “sorry.”  

Keep communicating that mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow, and you will increase the likelihood that your child will have a great advantage in this life– the ability to admit their mistakes and correct them and to persist rather than quitting a difficult task.  And you will be helping them develop the foundation for apologizing sincerely when they have done something wrong.


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