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posted: 8/8/2013 7:47 PM

How you handle kids' mistakes a defining moment

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By Kent McDill

Kids make mistakes.

It's hard being a kid. There is new information to deal with every day. Some things are heavy. Some things are slippery. It's hard to pay attention sometimes.

Stuff happens.

Assuming you do not have your children in some sort of protective cocoon or bubble, they are going to get themselves in trouble around the house. They are going to drop things, or break things, or make things stop working.

How you react to those moments is HUGE in terms of future behavior of the children. It won't stop them from dropping things or breaking things or making thing stop working properly, but your response will DEFINITELY determine how they deal with letting you know just what has happened and who is responsible.

If they know they are not going to get severely punished for accidental behavior, they are more likely to 'fess up the next time they do it. If they find out that every accident comes with parental rebuke, they might be less interested in speaking up.

(Have you ever found a broken item in the house that was placed in a hiding spot so you wouldn't find it? That always cracks me up.)

And here is where parents of an only child have a big advantage. You know who did it. (Unless, of course, you have reason to suspect your spouse. I believe there are some spouses who will immediately accuse their spouse of breaking things rather than accuse the child, and I'll bet there are spouses who will say "the kid did it'' as his or her first line of defense when so accused.)

When you witness an accident take place, it is important to immediately place the accident in some context. Did anybody get hurt? Did anything important get broken? Did anything that needs to be replaced get broken?

They tell you "don't sweat the small stuff"' and in these incidences, it is all small stuff. What matters is letting your child know it's not the end of the world.

Now, I am not in any way suggesting that's how I have dealt with such events. I am capable of going ballistic, especially if an accident requires a huge cleanup, or even worse, major repair.

(A quick aside: If something gets damaged that I can fix, like a hole in a wall, I don't get that upset, even if I know it is going to require a great deal of time. If it requires a visit from an expensive repairman, then I become unfriendly.)

When an accident takes place and no one is around to see it, does it really happen? Of course it does, but that doesn't mean you will find out who did it, if you have multiple children.

We have four kids, and they are all very smart. They may not know what "plausible deniability" means, but they sure know how to use it.

So, that lamp gets broken (probably because someone was dribbling a soccer ball in the house) and NO ONE has any idea how it happened! The kids will go so far as to suggest that someone came into the house, broke the lamp and then ran out, having completed their mission of breaking a lamp inside someone else's house.

As a parent, you have to avoid assuming that the broken item was damaged by your child who most often breaks things. We have one of those, and on more than one occasion she has been accused of doing damage simply because it makes sense somehow.

You can also hope you have a child who is a miserable liar. You can look for clues, like him not looking you in the eyes, or the way they run out of the room screaming "I don't know" so to avoid looking you in the eyes.

The one thing you can always count on is that one sibling will attempt to "turn in" another sibling. In some cases, of course, the accuser sibling becomes the No. 1 suspect. It's like playing Clue, and if I wasn't so busy cleaning up and playing detective, I would give each of my kids a cute character name to make the process easier (but I will not be handing them the weapons; that's just dumb).

There is one parental trick that almost always works in these cases, but even with this trick, you have to react properly.

"I will not get mad; I just want to know who did it," I will say. "I will respect you for admitting your culpability." (I have never said that in my life, actually, because I can never think of the word "culpability" when I need it.)

The idea that I won't get mad over something that is broken or spilled or made inoperable is a key that helps unlock whatever guilt might exist. When I follow through with my promise and don't get mad, it is like a reward for admitting responsibility.

But, I want them to know and do tell them, that as much as I appreciate them telling the truth, I would much rather they not break things or spill things or make things inoperable.

Sometimes you have to spell these things out.

• Kent McDill is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Janice, have four children, Haley, Dan, Lindsey and Kyle.

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