By Hara Estroff Marano, published on November 2, 2007 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
My five-year-old son does not want to own up to mistakes. My husband and I are both pretty good at accepting our mistakes and saying, "sorry, that was my fault." An example of what goes on: My son wants to watch his favorite program before school, to do that he has to have eaten breakfast and gotten dressed. He dilly-dallies until the little hand is on the seven, and then he will complain that it's because of our rule that he can't watch his show. If he gets punished and I take away a toy it's my desire to be a bully not his disobedience that gets him in the pickle. When one of these incidents happens I go through a question answer period with him: "Who got your breakfast ready?" "Mom." "Who didn't eat the breakfast?" "Me." "Why can't you watch your show?" "You made a rule that's not fair." On the whole my son behaves pretty well. I don't see misplacing blame as a good habit to get into though, can you please help me nip this before it becomes more serious or am I wrong? Is this normal?
Wow. You seem to have forgotten that your five-year-old son is… ONLY FIVE YEARS OLD. And the dominant tone in the household has become punitive and joyless. The behavior police are working overtime, on 24-hour vigil looking for the slightest infraction. You and your husband seem hyper focused on mistakes and assigning blame, and then you compound the misery by using mistakes as object lessons in overly complex interrogations. That's not an atmosphere for teaching anybody anything that will stick, just for breeding resentment. People automatically learn from mistakes—if you don't rub their nose in them and don't fill them with shame. Your son is actually doing you a favor by trying to tell you that your method isn't working, but you see it only as more evidence of disobedience. Try to remember that he is five years old and that the methods of interrogation you are trying to apply as behavior control are spectacularly unsuccessful because they are spectacularly irrelevant to a five year old. Really, who is eager to "own up to mistakes" at any age, but especially when doing so brings on a ritualized interrogation that has something to do with Mommy making breakfast, which has something to do with watching TV.
If you want someone to own up to mistakes, then create a positive atmosphere and lead by example. Model the behavior you wish to instill in your child, without commentary. By all means, you and your husband should continue to openly apologize for any mistakes. Your son will catch on—as long as you don't rub his mistakes in his face, which is humiliating. But I sure hope you and your husband converse about much more than your mistakes; the tone you and he set in the household—hopefully, a positive tone—will be a strong influence on whether your son wants to be like you or not. What you really need to nip is your own focus on mistakes and especially on blame. The big secret to raising kids (and dealing with anyone of any age, for that matter) is that you have to pay attention to and notice—and then reward—the good behavior. Then, over time, the bad behavior tends to disappear, if you don't make an issue out of it or if you haven't drilled in the behavior pattern so deeply it actually becomes part of a personality structure. But you are exclusively paying attention to and rewarding bad behavior; what comes across to your son is that he gets lots of attention when he misbehaves. There's no incentive for him to behave well at all. You are essentially training the boy to be defiant, and in this case, it's a welcome relief from the joylessness of the household. Besides, it suggests he has some backbone, and every parent should want some of that in a child.
Compliance is vastly overrated and 100 percent compliance is 100 percent undesirable. You want to raise a child who can think for himself and, ultimately, function independently. Sit down with your son and set up a few simple, clear rules of the household, rules that do not require an owner's manual or a Socratic dialogue. "No TV before getting dressed and eating breakfast" sounds like it might be one reasonable rule; actually, better to phrase it in the positive: "You can watch TV on school days after you're dressed and have had breakfast, as long as we are out of the house before X hour." That's clear and understandable and it lets your son know what NOT to do and exactly what TO DO to get what he wants as well as meet your needs. You can make your son a stakeholder in his own good behavior by asking him what some good simple rules might be—and what he thinks are fair consequences for not complying. Your son doesn't have to love every action you take. But you must be fair and consistent in applying sanctions— with minimum explaining and zero interrogation. And just for the record, whenever you find yourself having the same arguments over and over and getting nowhere in them, that's a signal that your approach is not working. Then it's time to sit down and figure out something else.