A single question to address every naughty moment

Today we’re going to share our technique that can be used any time a child has done something they weren’t supposed to do or has not done something they were supposed to do. We say it so many times that the kids usually don’t need to hear it before they know what they need to do.

An Unfounded Concern

One of the complaints we found online about autistic parents is that it’s hard for any parent to tell if kids did something accidentally or on purpose but especially autistic parents. The author of this complaint said that therefore an autistic parent wouldn’t know what corrective action to take. Is it time to punish or assist? 

We do not think you need to know the child’s intention in order to respond appropriately. Because our goal as parents isn’t to make sure our kids come to justice. Our goal is to raise them to be the kind of adults who take responsibility for their own actions and work to make things better. It doesn’t really matter if they did it by accident or on purpose. 

Let’s say Tim stepped on Robin’s foot and broke it. She’d certainly be a lot more upset if he’d done it on purpose but either way, her foot is still broken and he still needs to take care of her until it’s healed. If he’s generally mean-spirited then we’ve got a separate problem, but in that exact situation, he needs to get her medical attention, do all the housework, maybe drive her places if she can’t drive.  He is responsible for making it better.

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Or let’s say we walk into the living room to find our son eating yogurt with a huge splash of yogurt on the floor next to him. We’d guess it was his yogurt on the floor. Does it actually matter if our child did it on purpose? Whether it was on purpose or by accident or because his sister startled him and he dropped it or he was doing his homework and didn’t notice… regardless of the reason, we just need him to wipe it up. Getting into a discussion of why he did it is losing sight of what actually needs to happen now.

How We Handle Mistakes and Misdeeds in Our House

So the way we handle these situations in my house is to describe what we see and then ask one simple question: “What do you need to do to make it better?” For children who are too young to manage it alone we’ll modify that to “What do we do to make it better?”

So in the case of the yogurt we’d describe what we see and then ask the one question. “We see yogurt on the floor next to you. What do you need to do to make it better?”

It would be lovely if our son just hopped up and took care of it. But this is real life and most of the time he makes at least one attempt to not do anything to make it better. “It’s not mine” or “I didn’t mean to” etc. 

Just redirect. “That’s fine. What do you need to do to make it better?

If you’re someone who is comfortable with words you can give more of an explanation but you don’t have to. To say more, you could say, “That’s fine. I’m not worried about whose it is. It’s not mine either and if you don’t clean it up then I have to and that’s not fair to leave everything to me. What do you need to do to make it better?

But if your child has ADHD or is autistic we’d skip the explanation because it could overload your child; in that case, just stick with the short version. 

Not Just for the Little Things

This can be used for much worse situations. When our daughter was a toddler, Robin heard her suddenly start crying loudly in the next room. Robin rushed in and saw our son holding a 2×4 and looking shocked and our daughter crying with a 2×4- shaped mark on her face.

Robin picked up my daughter to comfort her and said to our son, “I see you holding a board and your sister is hurt. What do we need to do to make it better?” We’d been using this technique his whole life so he’d had a lot of practice. He jumped up and took the board outside and got an ice pack from the freezer. He use his “nice voice” and gave the 3 part apology we use. “I’m so sorry I hit you with the board. Next time I’ll leave it outside where it belongs and watch what I’m doing with it. What can I do to make it better?”

So it didn’t really matter his original intentions. He was working on making it better. Let’s say instead that he’d done it on purpose. The same technique of describing and asking what he needs to do to make it better is better than yelling, shaming, or similar responses. He’s more likely to get back on the correct path. You can still have appropriate consequences (such as not allowing him to have access to 2x4s for a few days) but the initial reaction needs to be one that encourages responsibility rather than shame. 

Keep Your Eye on the Goal

Ultimately, the goal is a child who grows into an adult who takes responsibility and works to make things better whether or not they did something intentionally–and really whether or not it was their responsibility at all.  None of us like the adults who are constantly trying to get out of things by claiming they didn’t mean it or that it wasn’t them. If we did scold and punish, our son would have learned a lot less from the experience. 

So, start practicing now. Describe what you see and ask what needs to be done to make it better. Have you used this technique before?  Can you think of a situation where it would have helped?  Or prove us wrong–what’s a situation where it wouldn’t work?

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