Just an accident!
“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.