explanatory story

Making mistakes and making amends

A while back, when my daughter was around 2.5 to 3 years old, she had a hard time coping when her cousin got hurt and cried when they played. The cousin is 8 months younger than my daughter and much smaller. Even in typical non-aggressive play, inevitably, my daughter would step on her cousin’s fingers or run into her and the cousin would fall over. Although my daughter tends to be bigger and sturdier than most same-age peers, she does not exhibit much aggression. In fact, I am surprised that my daughter does not turn around and bop her little cousin when she has had enough! (And of course, I am very thankful she is not going around smacking people.) Nevertheless, when the little cousin cried my daughter would retreat, avoid eye contact and eventually start crying. This occurred whether an adult was visible or not. When I offered comfort to the little cousin, that would always set my daughter to crying.

In general home life, I try to explicitly announce my mistakes and model how I help to correct them to illustrate that mistakes are normal and expected and that there is always something we can do after the mistake to help correct the situation. For example, if I spill something on the ground, I exclaim, “whoops, I made a mistake. I’ll get a cloth to clean this up.” Unfortunately, I do not have a lot of real-world examples of mistakenly hurting another person. Occasionally I do bump into my daughter such that she says she is hurt, and I will say, “whoops, sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you. Would you like a snuggle?”

With this premise in mind, I wrote the Mistake explanatory story for when we make mistakes that involve hurting someone else. A few points specific to this story are worth mentioning if you are writing your own mistake story:

  • It was challenging to write the story in a way that was clear without blaming my daughter. To address this challenge, I decided to state that mistakes happen without explicitly stating that my daughter makes mistakes. One of the recommendations when writing social stories for children with autism is to never blame the child for a behaviour. This seems obvious, especially when you think about the last time you were blamed for something; you may have become defensive, were not open to advice, and felt bad about the whole situation. However, when you get into the nitty gritty of writing, it is often our default to lay blame and it takes conscious effort to find a different way of describing the situation. In addition, in the book It’s OK to go up the slide, Heather Shumaker argues that it is good to admit your own mistakes, but it is not okay to point out someone else’s; they will eventually own their mistakes as you model the behaviour of making mistakes, owning the mistakes and helping correct them. Moreover, in the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Laura Markham emphasizes the importance of modeling how to make amends to others and providing opportunities for children to do so. With these ideas in mind, I hoped that my daughter could interpret the story as if she were an innocent bystander such that she would still be empowered to help and that over time, she would eventually own her mistakes and act accordingly. What I wanted to avoid was a scenario in which the feelings of making the mistake herself were so overwhelming as to shut down her ability to take helpful actions. At that point, the value of the story would be lost.
  • I had mostly used the word “mistake” and not “accident” in our everyday life, so although sometimes it felt more normal to write the word accident, I stuck with using the word mistake. Since this is a critical concept for this story, it is important to consider what word/phrase makes sense for each child.
  • I have “sorry” as one of the things my daughter can say to help make amends. This typically implies blame and is often how adults use it in child disputes, but if we think about it instead as saying, “I’m sorry you are going through this difficult time”, then it is more a phrase of understanding and empathy and less about admitting fault or laying blame. Although young children do not really know what “sorry” means, it can still be helpful to have a word to say as an action and eventually the word will have meaning. Saying sorry is not something I focus on in our daily interactions (it is discouraged by Shumaker who provides a great discussion in It’s OK to go up the slide), but I like to present it as one option for action. Conveniently, we have the Sorry book by Emily Bruce that introduced my daughter to the word being used in a few different situations prior to this explanatory story.
  • I added the statement of how your body might feel uncomfortable when someone else is hurt because young kids tend to express and feel things through their whole body, but adults tend to focus on thoughts (even though adults also experience physical reactions to upset and stress). This passage will hopefully provide another point of connection between a young child and the message of the story.
  • Finally, I provided statements that the hurt child will be comforted first and the other child (my daughter) will be comforted after. In hindsight, I would probably adjust the wording to make this message even more clear. Writing these stories is always a learning process!

When I first presented this story to my daughter, she had the reaction I was trying to avoid! She showed visible discomfort with the story, as if she knew that she was the one making mistakes that hurt her cousin (although this is just my assumption). I left the story in our brave story bucket and ignored it for a while. A few weeks later, my daughter pulled it out and we read it a few times and she no longer showed physical distress about the messaging. She also did not change her behaviour in practice! She continued to look away when her cousin cried and would start crying if her cousin were comforted by me and was not able to say “sorry”. However, over the following few months, there were small break throughs. She was eventually able to say “sorry” after a hurtful incident with prompting. So far, at 3.5 years old, she has not spontaneously said “sorry” to her cousin. However, she has spontaneously said “sorry” to me when she accidentally bops me and I say, “ouch” reflexively. I do not know if the normal development of both her and her cousin has led to a decrease in physical incidents between them or if my daughter is consciously more careful with her running/jumping/flailing limbs. When the cousin starts crying for other reasons (like wanting a specific stuffed animal), my daughter will say things like, “After my turn, you can have a turn” or she will find another stuffed animal and offer that as comfort. She will also spontaneously offer hugs to her distraught cousin even though my daughter typically does not like a lot of touching and hugging with anyone!

All in all, I think this story helps to provide ideas for helpful action when someone is upset in a framework of empathy and understanding. I have also used it as a starting point for talking about how our bodies feel when we are upset or when others are upset.

In my next post, I will describe a socially distant birthday experience that went better than expected for my newly minted 3-year-old daughter.