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Don’t Let Your Child Play the Blame Game

Mistakes are learning opportunities, but they’re wasted if you don’t own them.

It’s normal for young children to blame others for their errors or misbehaviors:

  • “My teacher doesn’t like me! That’s why I only got a B on that assignment.”
  • “Tandy hit me first!”
  • “I’ll be late for school again! Why didn’t you wake me up earlier?”

There are many reasons that children (like adults) try to offload responsibility for things gone wrong: avoiding disapproval and other painful consequences, preserving a self-image as a good or competent person, and sometimes getting revenge.

John Wooden was a legendary basketball player and coach with a great record for winning. As head coach at the University of California, Los Angeles, his team won ten national championships in a twelve-year period. There were a lot of factors responsible for his successes, and one of the most important was his attitude toward failure. He knew that high-level achievement was grounded in failure, that the best way for anyone to learn anything is to get it wrong. To try again, and again, and again, until they got it right. He’s famous for the way he encouraged young people to go beyond the limits anyone had thought possible for them, reminding them it wasn’t what they were given that mattered, but what they did with it: “Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

John Wooden had an allergic reaction to blame. If a player missed a shot, he didn’t want to hear about someone else knocking into him and spoiling his aim. If a player was late for practice, he didn’t want to hear about the buses running behind schedule. If his team lost a game, he didn’t want to hear any grumbling about the referee. Mistakes and defeat were acceptable, but blame was not: “You aren’t a failure until you start to blame,” he repeatedly told his players.

Carol Dweck discusses this Woodenism—“You aren’t a failure until you start to blame”—in Mindset, where she discusses the importance of welcoming failure as a learning opportunity. As soon as you look for someone to blame for something that has gone wrong, you’ve missed the chance to learn something from what has happened. Failure is a wasted opportunity if you don’t own it.

How to help your child move away from blame, and toward owning their mistakes:

  1. Be patient, loving, and accepting. Children are more likely to look for someone or something to blame when their parents are critical, impatient, and demanding, that is, when there’s a high emotional price for making mistakes.
  2. Turn it around:

a. Name the blame. When your child blames someone or something, name it. Do it kindly, with a friendly smile: “Really? You are blaming ME for you not getting up on time?”

b. Connect to the underlying problem. Your child is playing the blame game because they’re sad, worried, hurt, or afraid. Be empathetic: “I know you hate to be late. It’s such a hassle, and it’s embarrassing going into the principal’s office for another late slip.”

c. Ask “Where’s the gift?” Every problem comes with a gift of possible learning: “So, what can we do tomorrow to make sure you get to school on time?”

3. Role play blame vs. accepting mistakes. Work with your child to create problem scenarios where you or your child might be tempted to blame. Take turns acting them out, using blame as well as accepting the mistakes as learning opportunities. Your child will probably love putting you into terrible imaginative situations, and having you behave abominably. This can be fun, as well as providing some learning that will be useful in every part of your child’s life—home, school, relationships, and (later) work.

4. Model a growth mindset. Openly welcome setbacks in your own life and work as learning opportunities. Don’t blame others or situations when things go wrong.

5. Seek help if needed. Some children seem unable to accept responsibility for their own actions, and can’t move beyond blame. In those circumstances, you may benefit from getting some professional help.

People who avoid blame, and instead learn from their setbacks, are more resilient. They are more likely to take on tough challenges, to look at problems creatively and constructively, and to work through failure to a much higher success than is otherwise possible.

For more on blame:

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

17 Famous “Woodenisms” by Coach John Wooden,” by Craig Impelman

The Defiant or Misbehaving Child—Blame Others,” in The ABCs of Mental Health, by the Hospital for Sick Children

Why Kids Blame and Lash Out and How to Help Them,” by Laura Markham, Aha! Parenting

Using Blame Pushes People Away,” by Carl Alasko

Nurturing Your Child’s Success with a Growth Mindset,” by Melissa Benaroya

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