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Young People … Our Greatest Resource

Recognizing an Honest Mistake

RECOGNIZING AN “HONEST” MISTAKE: Difficult and defiant kids are often in so much trouble with their parents and teachers the line separating bad behavior and an honest mistake can become a bit blurry. With that in mind, let’s consider three defining characteristics of an honest mistake. Goal: More mistakes with become honest ones.

First, let’s look at an example, a great example.

Ken Nerburn, specialist and researcher into Native American cultures and customs, and author of many books on the topic, shares how one tribal group effectively managed minor wrongs committed by a young person of the tribe (from his book, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace):

I often think of the way Dakota Indians responded to a small wrong. When, for instance, a young person walked between an elder and a fire (an act of profound impoliteness in their culture), the young person said, simply, “Mistake.” It was an honest acknowledgement of an error of judgment, devoid of any self-recrimination or self-diminution. All present nodded in assent, and life went on.

How healthy such a attitude seems. We all commit mistakes in judgment, and we all need forgiveness. If we had the option of making a simple acknowledgement of our mistake and then going on with our affairs, how much clearer and gentler would life be? And how much healthier would our own hearts be if we looked upon the injuries caused us by others as simply the mistakes of human beings who, like us, are struggling to get by in a complex and mysterious world?”

As I see it, there are three important characteristics of an honest mistake, characteristics that stand in sharp contrast to deliberate or mean-spirited infractions:

1. The person making the mistake should be the first to acknowledge it. This a huge step in solving the issue. If someone else had to recognize the infraction, is it still a mistake? Could not acknowledging it be perceived as an attempt to ignore or hide the problem, or hope others won’t notice? Could it lead to a lie about one’s responsibility for the incident?

2. There should be a willing, self-directed effort to repair the mistake as much as possible. The youth in the story changed his movement so as to no longer offend the elders. A youngster who breaks a cup or a plate should pick up the pieces, put them in the trash, and offer to pay for the damage in some way.

3. Because of actions #1 and #2, resulting consequences are minimal or not at all. Mistakes happen; standing responsible for them is considered commendable in our society. In fact, respect for a person can deepen when one sees how they handle an honest mistake. An honest mistake handled well can draw new respect.

Suggestion: This could make a great little character lesson to use with a child or teen.

James D. Sutton, EdD, CSP

Consulting Psychologist/Certified Speaking Professional
PO Box 672, Pleasanton, TX 78064
(800) 659-6628 Email:

August 28, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thoughts on “The Help”

I took my wife to see the new movie, “The Help,” yesterday. Not only was it $5.00 ticket Tuesday, the theater was packed at midday. Added to that was the fact that there was not a soul in the theater under the age of 50. (Not sure what that means.)

This was an awesome picture, but not one you would “enjoy.” In fact, we were disturbed by the slices of real life depicted on the screen. Although that was the early ’60s, it struck me that a lot of the entitlement attitudes of some folks continue on.

How can people treat other human beings like that? When they say and do things that inflict pain on others, that’s only a small, small part of what they’re thinking. The movie was a wake-up call.

Sensitivity to others and decency is ALWAYS in style.

James Sutton, Psychologist

August 24, 2011 Posted by | adversity, family, Healthy living | , , , | Leave a comment

Eliciting Conseqences for Inappropriate Behavior

This piece was the second part of the “Your Questions Answered” section of the ODD Management Digest. (The Digest is free; subscribe from the column on the right.) It poses some good strageties for more pleasant outcomes of a conflict between parent and child.

I appreciated what Janet Lehman had to say in the recent two-part piece on consequences. In discussing it with a friend, however, an alternative of “eliciting” consequences was suggested. I’m not sure what this is, but it sounds interesting. How does it work?

In the last issue of the Digest I addressed this question. It’s a good question, and it helped us look at another way of managing consequences with a difficult or defant youngster.

A Little Review

The approach we covered last month was not complicated at all. In fact, it made a lot of sense. It involved simply asking the youngster to state the consequence to follow.

The most difficult part of eliciting a consequence is the making certain that in a moment of no strife or difficulty, consequences for certain behaviors or actions (including behaviors of “not doing”) have already been discussed with the child or teen. It would be a great idea to write them down, print them off, and give the youngster a copy. That way, if the child says, “I don’t remember,” they can go get their list or retrieve it from the saved file on the computer. (I suppose we could call that “Family” Public Record.)

Last month I also emphasized the value of the child stating the consequence to the parent. THIS IS CRITICAL. There’s something about a son or daughter stating the consequence back to the parent in their own voice that serves to nail down the issue.

Always keep in mind that with this approach, some work has to be done up front, long before the consequence is needed.

Another Way

But what if the work has not been done up front? What if the situation of the infraction is so unique there is no preset consequence?

Try this: Calmly ask the child what she believes would be a reasonable consequence. Better yet, ask her to come up with a menu of three. You might present it in a manner something like this:

Suzie, I’m sure you understand I’m not happy about what you did (or didn’t do), but I’ve always seen you as a reasonable and fair young lady. See if you can come up with three consequences you believe both of us can accept. If so, I’ll pick one, and we’ll be done with it. Okay?On the other hand, Suzie, if you don’t think you are reasonable and fair person, let me know, and I’ll come up with one. (Not likely to happen.)

“Come up with three consequences …” is actually a pretty solid consequence in itself, isn’t it?

I do believe most youngsters understand the concept of “reasonable and fair.” Suzie know that telling a lie doesn’t mean she’ll sleep outdoors for six months, but she also knows a parent isn’t likely to let a blatant falsehood go unaddressed.

Even when she messes up, Mom and Dad can honor Suzie when they appeal to her sense of what seems right.

James D. Sutton, EdD, CSP

Consulting Psychologist/Certified Speaking Professional
PO Box 672, Pleasanton, TX 78064
(800) 659-6628 Email:

August 15, 2011 Posted by | Difficult Child, family, Parents | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Life is Fragile Enough; Don’t Break It!

LIFE IS FRAGILE ENOUGH; DON’T BREAK IT! I had a pretty wild idea about a month or so ago. (I guess the 100+ degrees days of the south Texas heat were cooking my brain.) I decided I would grow fall tomato plants from seed, plant them in five-gallon buckets (I had about four dozen of them donated), and give them to the senior citizens in our church. (In this part of the country, it’s possible to have fresh, home-grown tomato relish with your Christmas dinner.)

My first agricultural efforts were a disaster. I grew exactly ZERO tomato plants. As I was sharing as much with one of the senior ladies in the church, she pulled me aside and told me how to grow tomatoes from seed.

They’re so fragile; everything has to be just right.

She told me to cover newly planted seeds with a damp potato sack (AKA “gunny sack” or “toe sack).

Don’t water them by hand; you’ll drown them. Just keep the sack damp, and it will both water them and protect them. Do that, and you’ll have tomato plants.


I followed her sage advice. Tomato seedlings started popping up in four days. Four days!

Watching those tiny plants come to life reminded me of our first child. When my wife and I brought him home from the hospital, we wanted everything to be just right. We sterilized everything, made certain that the temperature of his formula was perfect, and we would get up in the night to check on him in his crib. (Do you remember gently placing your hand on your baby’s back at night, just to make sure he or she was breathing?)

Can you identify? Eventually that helpless little creature that depended so on you to survive grew up a bit, didn’t they? They began not to listen when you told them something, or they threw their clothes down just any old place, or they didn’t take out the trash, or they made a “C” in math or conduct on their report card. They weren’t fragile anymore, and they weren’t much fun at times, either. In fact, they were times when they were downright annoying.

What’s the cost of annoying behavior in relationship currency? Could it mean Dad will not see his daughter smile at him because he’s still upset with her for spilling a whole milkshake in his new car? Could it mean that Mom might step away when her son tries to hug her because she still resents the fact he was 20 minutes late last night when they were all supposed to go over to her supervisor’s house for dinner?

What’s the price of those annoying behaviors?

Although I’ve been a child and adolescent psychologist for a few decades, my wife has always been the better and more intuitive parent in our house. When our son, like so many teenagers, seemed to be on his own flight plan through life, it annoyed her no end that he made no effort at all to keep his room picked up. (We’re not talking spotless here; we’re talking the simple ability to navigate the room with reasonable safety and without the need for a tetanus shot.)

She and he have always been close, but this “Pick up your room!” thing was pressing hard on them both. When she realized the price they were paying for it was too dear, she made him this bargain:

Son, if you’d like for your room to be vacuumed and cleaned, you’ll need to pick it up enough so someone can get in there. If you don’t want to do that, then close the door where I don’t have to look at it. If you do that, I won’t say any more about it.

I won’t say that bargain always worked smoothly, but I am certain their relationship improved because of it.

Yes, just like with those tiny, tender little tomato seedlings, life is precious and fragile. We really have no guarantees we will see our loved ones again when we send them off for the day. None at all.

So think about it: Could closing the door a little open up the relationship a lot?

James D. Sutton, EdD, CSP

Consulting Psychologist/Certified Speaking Professional
PO Box 672, Pleasanton, TX 78064
(800) 659-6628 Email:

August 9, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment