It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Just an accident!

Child A smashes into Child B. Tears and mayhem ensue. Adult intervenes and suggests that Child A owes Child B an apology.

“It was an accident!!” Child A declares.

“I know, honey. Next time, be more careful.”

This is not an unusual scenario. Have you seen it? Have you ever stopped to consider how wrong it is? Do you stop, stare, and scream (quietly to yourself)? I hope you do!

I spend so much time with small kids I see it a lot, and every time I see it, I sort of reel inside. What is that adult thinking?

Let’s extrapolate this reasoning a bit, shall we?

A nine-year-old spills paint all over a schoolmate’s science project. He doesn’t have to apologize, doesn’t have to offer to.. I don’t know… help colour in the graphs the friend will have to re-draw… because it was an accident?

Wait. I bet this happens all the time… Try again…

Your teenager’s Limewire habit has your computer crawling with viruses. He/she doesn’t have to spend the time to clean the computer… because the infestation wasn’t intentional?

Huh. I’ll bet this happens all the time, too. (Probably the kid in my first example six years later…)

Okay. How about this one? You knock down a pedestrian while driving. You don’t have to hire a lawyer/talk to a judge/pay a fine/do jail-time… because it was an accident? Yup. That’ll do. Because you know what? I’ll bet the judge and the victim don’t figure the fact that it was unintentional totally absolves you of accountability. It might mitigate the severity of the consequences, but there will still be consequences.

When you hear “It was an accident!!!” there are a couple of things to consider.

First, it’s entirely possible that the child may be LYING to you. Children are developmentally capable of lying sometime around the age of three and four. (You thought you just had one of the only delightfully honest two-and-a-half year olds on earth? Nope. They just haven’t figured out that YOU can believe something THEY know to be false. It’s a developmental thing. Don’t worry. In another year or so, your little sweetie can (and will) lie to you. Yes, it is disillusioning. Even after all these years of working with toddlers, I still feel a little crushed when I hear that first lie. I know it’s inevitable, but that loss of innocence still grieves me, just a bit.)

So there’s that. It could be … no, you know what? Given how often “It was an accident!!!” is used as a defense, it’s probably a lie. Statistically, I’m betting there just aren’t that many ‘accidents’, particularly if the child in question is over six or seven years old, and even more particularly if “It was an accident!!” has gotten them off the hook in the past.


Even if it’s true, though, even if it genuinely was an accident… um… so what? When a child tells me that “It was an accident!!!!” I generally respond with, “Well, goodness, I sure hope so! I wouldn’t like to think you’d do that on purpose!


I then point out that, accident or not, Child B is hurt and some reparation — an apology and/or a hug and/or some other nice deed — is required. The point is that, intended or not, your action had a consequence and you have some responsibility to deal with that consequence. The fact that it was accidental does not absolve you of accountability any more than it eliminates the other’s pain/embarrassment/whatever.

“I know it was an accident, but Grace is still hurt. You need to say sorry and give her a hug.”

So they say sorry, they give the hug…

And then we get on with our day.

June 2, 2011 - Posted by | aggression, manners | , ,


  1. I’m with you on this one! I don’t know how many times in the past year of working at a preschool I’ve said something like, “I know it was an accident. She/he still got bumped/pushed/stepped on/etc. You can say, ‘I’m sorry. It was an accident! Are you okay?'”

    Oh, I like the “Are you okay?” I’m going to add that to my repertoire. The younger ones won’t be able to manage it, but as soon as they’re verbal enough, that will be added to the expectation. Very nice. Should have thought of that years ago, but glad to have it now! Thank you!

    Comment by Kethrim | June 2, 2011 | Reply

  2. I totally agree and do this with my own kids. What really annoys me is parents who say, “I won’t make him apologize if he doesn’t really mean it because that just teaches him to lie.”

    I’ve heard that. I have so very many objections to it…

    First: We learn by doing. Things become real to us as we experience them. So, by repeated rote expression of remorse and empathy, we gradually learn to feel remorse and empathy. If we expect empathy to arise in our child at some unspecified, magical moment of maturity without nudging, modelling, and consistently-expressed expectations, we are going to be sadly disappointed.

    Second: So? Since when did our social contracts with others put honesty above all? “What do you think of my new haircut?” “It makes you look like shit.” Um, no. Not for most of us is that kind of honesty required or desired. Our interactions with others need to be guided and modified by consideration, kindness, and respect. So: will I teach my child to be slightly less than 100% honest in certain situations? Of course I will. Moreover: “Honesty” is NOT the same thing as “100% factual”. One of the most fundamentally dishonest people I’ve ever known prided himself on giving factual answers to straight questions, no matter how difficult. But was he honest? Nothing like.

    I could go on, but this is a comment, not a post… (It annoys me, too. You may have noticed.)

    Comment by Anita | June 2, 2011 | Reply

  3. This is huge to me. I think we need to separate the words “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” so that we apologize when we have wronged someone. We are sorry when we have empathy for the negative event that happened to them. If the negative event was our fault, on purpose or not, we need to apologize.

    I insist that the apology use the words that explain what the guilty party did or what happened. For example: “I’m sorry that my toy bumped you” “I’m sorry that I hit you with my toy” “I’m sorry that you fell and got hurt” I hope it helps my kids understand the concept of responsibility and empathy.

    I love the distinction you make between “I’m sorry” and “I apologize”. That’s excellent. I think you’re absolutely correct. (I assume that a person who is apologizing also feels sorry/empathy. “I’m sorry” is a subset of “I apologize”, as it were. You can be sorry even when an apology isn’t necessary, but when you apologize, you’ll also be sorry. Have I got that right?)

    Like you, I also make sure they incorporate what the offense was, but only with the older children. With the just-verbal ones, a “Sorry!” will suffice. (Though I will make it clear for all what the issue is.)

    Comment by My Kids Mom | June 2, 2011 | Reply

  4. I so completely agree with you! I tell my kid that he may not have meant it (he’s 3, still hasn’t lied yet, but I know it’s coming), but he still needs to let his brother (17 months) know he’s sorry. He’s pretty good about it.

    As for the lying stage, my nephew started that last year. It’s a fun stage, isn’t it?

    Comment by MJ | June 2, 2011 | Reply

  5. Such a good post! We’ve been working on this for awhile with my little ones. My son may be the most awkward child on earth and I still make him apologize when he crashes into something. He may not have meant to do it but it still happened.
    And thumbs up to learning by doing. It’s entertaining now to watch my 5yo tell my 2yo that she should say sorry or thank you. Also it’s interesting that she has picked it up so much more quickly because of watching him in addition to us.

    Comment by Danielle | June 2, 2011 | Reply

  6. I teach 4 year olds and at least twice a day a child will accidentally step on my toes (and yes, I continue to wear sandals- I have tough feet!). If I say nothing, pretty much every single child will move on and say nothing, so I say “Ouch!” Most children will then look at my foot, speechless. I will then state “you stepped on my foot.” Most children will then catch on and ask “are you ok?” or say they are sorry. There’s always that one child that needs to be coached through the whole process (“is there something you should say to someone that you have hurt?”). It’s painstaking, and would be easier to let the whole thing go (it usually doesn’t actually hurt much, and the kids usually look horrified when they realize they’ve stepped on their teacher), but I know I am preparing them for future incidents, so I carry on.

    Comment by Julia | June 2, 2011 | Reply

  7. I like the language about “Hoping the child wouldn’t do that on purpose,” and I absolutely INSIST on an apology. Usually I say, “Your brother is still hurt/sad, even when it’s an accident it’s still nice to apologize.” And when false accidents are claimed, i.e., I hit him over the head BY ACCIDENT, I correct that straight off. I say, “No, it wasn’t. It was a bad choice. An accident is when something is not on purpose.” And I got the big one to stop lying about accidents in about a month.

    Little brother is still lying about accidents though. It’ll take time.

    Comment by barneyneuberger | June 3, 2011 | Reply

  8. In Japan, if one is involved in a car accident, and one is at fault (at ALL, no matter how inadvertent!), one is required BY LAW to dress up and make a very formal visit to the injured person’s home, offer certain specific gifts, bow deeply, and say “I am so very sorry.”

    I LOVE their sense of personal responsibility!!

    THAT is fabulous.

    Comment by Carolie | June 5, 2011 | Reply

  9. Sticking my head above the parapet here – I am one of those parents who doesn’t force an apology. My daughter is two, and we are teaching her to experience empathy, rather than feeling it’s ok to rattle off a muttered “Soorrie” and carry on. It works because I absolutely consistantly behave in the way I expect her to behave. I never ignore a child getting hurt or upset – if my daughter has accidently bashed someone, I will always go up to them, ask them if they are ok and apologise on her behalf (and I make sure she is right beside me – she doesn’t get to wander off and ignore the situation). After the first few times she started to respond by offering the other child a hug or a kiss as I did that – now if she sees any child who is upset, she will offer a hug or a kiss, regardless of whether she was involved – because she feels empathy for that child. If she has deliberatly hurt someone, then she is told in no uncertain terms that it is NOT acceptable to hurt people, and then we go through the same procedure.

    We did the same thing with “please” and “thank-you” – we scrupulously used “thank you” whenever we were given something or someone did something for us, and she quickly started to do the same. We have never prompted her, and she is far more consistant at it than her peers – she even gets the subtlty of thanking people for more abstract stuff, such as standing aside on the pavement for us.

    The only one we had more trouble with was “please”, until we looked at our behaviour and realised that we don’t always say “please”. Often we will say things like “would you mind passing me the salt?”, or “Is there any chance that you could do the washing tonight?” All very respectful,but it doesn’t actually use the word “please”. We realised that we were happy with that, so as long as she asks for something respectfully she doesn’t need to use the specific word “please”. She certainly doesn’t get by demanding though!

    It’s probably a harder slog than just getting a kid to recite “please, sorry, thank you”, and it means we need to be really careful about saying it ourselves, including remembering to thank her and apologise to her when appropriate, but the evidence suggests that actually children who are taught empathy rather than taught to recite the words are *more* likely to use it when not in the presence of adults than those who learnt by rote.

    My defining moment was at a friend’s house who did insist on “sorry”, and when she split a drink over her worktop, her son burst into tears, shouting “sorry, sorry, sorry” – he had no idea why he was saying it, but he knew that if a drink got split, you’d better say sorry or there’d be trouble. No thanks – we have a polite, respectful child without the fear or learnign by rote.

    I think this is a fabulous comment, and I’m taking the time it deserves to mull it over and come up with an equally thoughtful and respectful response. Thank you!

    Comment by Angie | June 6, 2011 | Reply

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