Fort Birthday

Accident vs. Mistake – Teaching Toddlers the difference

Defiance isn’t always intentional disobedience

I’ll get to Mistake vs. Accident in a second… We use an Ask-Answer-Ask model for discussing and reinforcing rules and behaviors with our three year old toddlers. It requires repetition. Constant repetition. Here’s a typical example:

When we leave the house everyone needs to pee first.

Me (Ask): What do we need to do before we get in the car to go to the Park?

Toddlers (Answer): Go to the potty.

Me (Ask, again): So, what are we going to do after we get our shoes on and before we go play at the park?

Toddlers (slightly annoyed at me at this point): Go pee on the potty.

Me: Ok, boys, it’s time for us to all go to the potty.

Toddlers (collapsing in a pile of misery): NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.


It is an adult’s mistake thinking that it is defiance when a toddler knows a rule, can tell you the rule, and still breaks the rule. They haven’t developed that ability yet.

Good thing they are cute, or I would have sent them back when they turned 32 months old.

The Competition of Conflicting feelings

He knows he is not supposed to do this. But when you want to make your dress-up box into a train car you tend to forget. And I had zero cares left to give that day.

Toddlers are self-centered little hedonists. As they get older they begin learning that a world exists outside of their own needs or immediate gratification. Figuring out how their needs fit into society is a tough task.

They know that following the rules makes the adults happy. Reciting the rules makes the adults happy. But depending on their age their WANTS can be too powerful. It is a real challenge choosing between following a rule (no hitting your brother after he steals your toy) and breaking a rule (I will get my toy back if I hit my brother).

Part of this is their inability to apply potential consequences to their actions. They sound like they understand the adverse consequence of breaking a rule. And they can tell you what they are, but they can’t apply that logic to themselves.

Me: are you allowed to hit your brother?

Them: No.

Me: what happens if you hit your brother?

Them: I get a time out.

Them (sees their brother steal their most precious toy) runs across the room yelling: I HIT MY BROTHER!


This is where you can see development between 18 months – 36 months. You watch a kid reaching for the forbidden object saying to themselves, “no. no. no. no. no. touch.” but they can’t help it. THEY NEED TO TOUCH IT.

Accident vs. Mistake

We talk with our 3 year-olds about Accidents vs. Mistakes. We emphasize the distinction between unavoidable acts and intentional acts.. like hitting your brother in the head with a truck.

An Accident

K runs through the playroom holding a truck. J sits innocently on the floor. K doesn’t have a firm grasp of physics, that the truck is heavy and extends beyond his body. K runs by J, clocking him upside the head with the truck. What we have here is an accident.

From an adult’s perspective K should be able to predict and therefor prevent this. From a toddler’s perspective, not so much. He had no idea that would happen. (BTW, the faster a kid is moving, the less they are able to foresee consequences.)

Accidents happen. But they are a zero sum event. Did you mean to hit your brother? No, ok. Well you did, and that was an accident. What can we do to help him feel better? Let’s do that.

Muddy Faced Toddler in Dilli Dalli Eyeglasses and Leveret Pajamas
Getting Mud ALL over yourself when you fell in a puddle: Accident.

A Mistake

K steals a beloved toy from J. J picks up a handy truck. Runs across the room with the truck raised over his head, and hits his brother (and yes, he often declares, Leeroy-Jenkins-style, “I hit my brother”). This, my friends, is a mistake.

At our house, “Mistakes” happen when you know a rule and make a choice to break it. We ask our toddlers to acknowledge that they made a decision to break a rule. And that their choice caused the consequence. They don’t understand all of this, but it is the foundation of understanding.

Toddler with big blue eyes makes a mistake when he grabs an apple out of a bin in a country store.
Choosing to grab an apple immediately after he was reminded not to: a mistake. 
Rural Life Museum at Tuckahoe Steam and Gas

By the way, it doesn’t matter why they made the mistake

At three years old they can’t explain WHY they made the choice. Asking them why doesn’t really get us anywhere. We use a simple script after Time Outs are over and everyone calms down.

Me: What happened? Did you make a mistake? Tell me what the rule is? Did you make a choice to break the rule? Next time can you try to make a different choice? What are some other choices you could have made?

Apologizing and Toddlers – something I’m thinking about

I can increasingly see why making a toddler say “I’m sorry” is problematic.

1) It reinforces an idea that, so long as you apologize, you can break rules. You just have to say sorry after.

2) Much of the time it is insincere. J isn’t sorry he hit K. He is sorry he got caught. He is sorry I put him in Time Out.

Instead of (or in addition to) apologizing we are asking them, “What do you need to do to fix this?” It helps them brainstorm conflict resolution and to learn that actions speak louder than words.

Mom with twin toddlers in Sunflower field.
Facing your mistakes as a mom is never easy.

Everyone makes mistakes

Oh, your sister and your brother and your dad and mother too – Sesame Street Sings

It’s important that my kids see that grownups can (and do) make their own mistakes. “I was wrong. I made a poor choice. Next time I will do better.” Modeling this helps me see that acknowledging a mistake is a powerful tool as a parent. It allows me a chance to deescalate my own feelings – especially with battles I might lose. Or that I am actually losing.

“Hey, guys. Momma made a mistake telling you that if you hit your brother again we cannot watch paw patrol.” (It was a mistake saying this because, I need to get some shit done this afternoon, and Paw Patrol is the only way that is going to happen). “Momma made a poor choice. But that is ok, because when we make mistakes the first thing we do is tell someone. And then they can help us figure out how we can do better. I am going to make a different choice.”

Navigating this mess is complicated. Hope some of this helps. Friends, have a great week, Leah Frances

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Accident vs. Mistake
Teaching Toddlers The Difference

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