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Sometimes, parents and teachers get so caught up in the seriousness of a mistake and how it needs to be corrected, that we leave kids’ goodness out of the discussion.

It’s like we’re afraid that if we point out anything positive, the child will think they’re getting away with something.

But it's important to remind our kids that, hey, you MADE a mistake, but YOU ARE NOT a mistake.

Dr. Jane Nelsen, one of the founders of the Positive Discipline program, offers an eye-opening perspective when she asks: “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?”

When a child has made a mistake, that’s when they most need encouragement.

For those of us who were raised to expect punishment for our mistakes, this may seem counterintuitive. But consider that “encouragement” means “to give support, confidence, or hope.” When we’ve made a mistake, we need to have the courage and confidence to admit it, make amends and move forward with the belief that we’re capable of doing better.

Encouragement looks like:

  • Listening and asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity, to better understand what caused our child to do what they did.
  • Helping them brainstorm ways to make amends or fix something (including a relationship) that might be broken.
  • Discussing ways to rebuild trust.
  • Pointing out how our child demonstrates character strengths and then determining, together, how those strengths could be used for a better result in the future.

Sometimes, in an attempt to focus on strengths, especially at the end of a problem-solving discussion, it’s easy to slip back into discouragement mode with backhanded compliments like:

  • You have great leadership skills and other kids really follow you. Unfortunately, you’re leading them down a negative path.
  • You have a great sense of humor and you’re good at making people laugh. It’s just that your jokes are getting the class off task.
  • You’re making progress in doing your chores. I just wish you’d drop the attitude.

I think we tag on that last bit of criticism because we’re just a little afraid they didn’t get the point about how serious the mistake was and how important it is to fix it.

We need to keep that fear in check and instead send the message that we have confidence in them and we love who they are.

That means ending the compliment with the good part:

  • I see you as having great leadership skills! Other kids really follow you.
  • You have a great sense of humor and you’re good at making people laugh.
  • You’ve done what I asked you to do, and I really appreciate how helpful you are.

When kids expect encouragement rather than punishment, they’ll be more likely to admit to their mistakes, instead of trying to hide from them or cover them up. This can be a starting point for growing core character strengths like honesty, integrity and accountability. Plus, it provides them with a greater opportunity to learn and grow from the experience.

By Eva Dwight, BA, MEd, ACC, CPDT  (Written for All The Moms, USA Today,

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