How to turn your mishaps into learning opportunities

Amazon: Lemonade dispenser Not long ago we were talking about parenting kids who tend toward negative thinking. Combatting my son's pessimism is one of my most persistent parenting challenges, and I recently had an unexpected opportunity to model a different way of thinking.

Our car was broken into and essentially cleaned out. This isn't the first time — we've lost three GPS units over the years — but this time it was obvious someone had spent a fair amount of time in our van. I discovered this as the kids and I were rushing out the door on our way to a Sunday morning activity.

What did I do? Did I hug the children and give a rousing speech about how it's just stuff and at we have each other and that's what's important? Did I immediately call the police to file a report? No. I dropped on my knees and cried.

I cried because I was the one who had left the car unlocked (again), and because it wasn't fair and because it sucks to get your car broken into. Not the most mature reaction. But, like so many of my other parenting "mistakes," it may have taught my kids more than a perfectly measured, reasonable response.

  • My kids got the chance to rise to the occasion.
  • They got to comfort me.
  • They got to be the ones in control.
  • They got to pat my shoulder while brainstorming possible solutions (Webcams! Up and down the entire street!).
  • They also got to see that it's normal to have a little meltdown once in a while.

Once I calmed down, we hugged and gave a little moment of thanks that we had cleared the car of major valuables a couple days before. We also noticed that the car looked pretty damn clean (note silly optimistic spin here).

This led to a conversation about how we can prevent a break-in from happening again. I happen to have a terrible memory. I forget to lock the car all the time. But if there are three brains on the problem instead of one, the chances of the car getting locked go way up. We could post a little sign in the car and inside the front door that reminds us to lock to car. Another chance to model positive thinking (What can we learn? How can we help each other? rather than I'm an idiot for leaving the car unlocked! That burglar's a jerk!).

We've had great conversations after other mishaps as well. My first speeding ticket (taking responsibility when you do something wrong), losing my keys (we're all still learning to put our stuff away!), and various cooking flops (things don't always go smoothly the first time).

The lesson for me is that modeling isn't just about the good stuff you demonstrate for your kids. It's also about your reponse to the bad stuff. Breathe easier knowing that your humanity — not your perfection — is one of your most powerful parenting tools.

I'd love to hear your stories (at the very least they'll make me feel better about my car!). Can you recall a mishap that had a surprisingly positive lesson to teach you or your kids?

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  1. Caro says

    This is a great post and got me thinking about things. A lot of the time when I handle a situation well, it isn’t obvious that there was a situation at all. Now I think I’ll start using them as teaching moments.

    As for the break-ins, I can completely understand. My car got broken into (no need to leave it unlocked!) 5 times in just over a year. Once the broke in to steal a new set of pots and pans I left in the car overnight! And they stole my jumper cables and tire jack another time. I was living in SE Portland at the time and the cops told me it was pretty common.

  2. says

    Well this is sort of funny in a sad way, my friend forwarded this to me as the same thing happened to me yesterday! I was also rushing out the door to meet my husband and my son at the pumpkin festival. I was dragging my older daughter and my baby twins to the car and as I go to open the door I see the glove compartment & middle storage unit open & stuff everywhere. I too left it unlocked and it did happen before but this time they took my GPS as well as some chargers. It just sucks as I am off on mat leave and just can’t afford a new one. Anyway my reaction was much like yours… I broke down. Also like you I have since spoke to my daughter who’s 11 about it (they stole her game charger & sunglasses too). I said when it comes down to it, it is just stuff that can be replaced (some day, if I ever can afford it!) BUT I look at it this way… I would never do something like this to someone. WHY? Well lots of reasons but foremost is I care to much about hurting people… even a stranger. Why do I care about people? Because I have people who care about me back. I think that the sort of people who could do this, to someone with a 17 year old car who obviously (by all the kids the junk in the car & 3 car seats in the back) can ill afford to have my one luxury taken, well they must be a very sad little person indeed. So if they need to take my things to feel good then I guess I should feel sorry for them. I have 4 wonderful kids and I have so many wonderful people that do kind things for me all the time… why, because I try to be kind to other people, friends or strangers alike, I care and so in the end I receive all the love and caring back, while this thief… well their Karma will be something entirely different!

  3. says

    Asha, what a great story and learning experience. I actually think it is really healthy (and necessary) for kids to see that their parents are mere humans. Not only does it help prepare them and build awareness about the real world (sadly, in this case, the suckage that is theft) but it teaches problem solving skills.

    I’m always a little amazed by how Laurel thinks on her feet when things like this happen. I lost my keys this summer and was completely. freaking. out. In contrast, Laurel was totally calm, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry Mom, we’ll find them! Let’s think about all of the places we went today to remember where you had them and where you didn’t.”

  4. says

    I absolutely love this post. Mine isn’t a mishap, but it’s a similar situation: After my dad passed away, I’d cry a lot. I still do, but it’s easier now to wait until I’m alone. At the beginning, I’d just randomly start crying and I wouldn’t be able to hide it. One time my 3YO son said, “Are you crying, Mom?” I said I wasn’t. My husband said, “Yes, Mom IS crying. She misses Grandpa a lot. And that’s okay.” I was so moved and proud of my husband. He was so right that I shouldn’t try to shield our kid from stuff like that. Better to be honest. My son immediately went into action, performing a little show to make me smile. It worked. I’m so happy he got the chance to make me feel better. He and I both learned something that day.

  5. Elizabeth says

    I feel very lucky that I can’t think of the last time something went majorly wrong for me in front of my daughter, but on a related note whenever I give an answer about something that turns out to be wrong, I make a point of calling attention to it: Mommy was wrong, that happens, people are wrong about things all the time, the important thing is to accept that you were wrong and that it doesn’t make you a bad person and see if there’s anything you can learn from the mistake.

    I’m really looking forward to more comments on this–great post!

  6. Hsw says

    Just wanted to say not locking the car doesn’t make this your fault. The people that took your stuff were in the wrong even if all your windows were open – they should know it isn’t their stuff to take.

    So sorry you had this happen, don’t be too hard on yourself. Love your site, by the way – I’ve been reading for 2 years and I enjoy your honesty and practical perspective. Thank you!

  7. Natasha says

    What a wonderful recount. Thank you for helping us mortals remember that we are merely mortal.

  8. Leslee says

    Um…well there’s that little incident of a certain 12-year-old who found his dad’s porn and thought it would be fun to share it with his cousin and his very Christian friend. Teaching moments present themselves in ways that we’ll never forget, don’t they?

  9. Kelly P. says

    My friend sent me this link after I facebooked about my own incident today.

    My children and I were headed out to surprise my husband for lunch. This is a big deal, since he’s working an hour and a half away! I loaded up the essentials for the day, got drinks, their special animals and had everyone buckled in their seats, ready to go. And at the last minute I thought I had better call ahead to warn him not to go out for lunch, just in case.

    It turned out that he had already agreed to go to a luncheon, and the reservation was made. He really couldn’t ditch it. I was heart-broken. I’m pregnant, tired, and miss him so much, and was looking forward to seeing him, and to making his day brighter with a surprise. I got off the phone quickly and started crying just like a small child would at the same kind of disappointment.

    In between embarrassing sobs, I broke the news to our 4yo boy, Joseph, and 2yo girl, Emma, that no, we would not be going to see Daddy today. Joseph’s first response was what I expected: anger and disappointment.

    But as he saw that I was continuing to cry, his own attitude changed. He got out of his seat, and stood beside me, petting my head and telling me it would be okay. And then, to my amazement, he told me he had a plan! He suggested we go somewhere (“McDonald’s, or get donuts, or go to a park”) so that “it would be fun and you can relax!”

    I was so moved by him rising to the occasion and encouraging me that I was actually encouraged and calmed down. He is only 4 years old, but in that moment, he grew up a lot.

    Thanks for the post! I certainly agree that it is parents being real, and not wearing the masks we put on for so many others, that will help our children as they grow.

  10. SarahD says

    I have a temper that is quick to flare and quick to die down. My daughter seems to also have my temper. (My son is much more of my husband’s temperament, which tends towards stewing and stifling…)

    At any rate, I do attempt to model good “post-flare” behavior for my daughter so she can see how to handle her temper. I try to control my temper, of course, but when I do raise my voice, I always go find her the moment I’ve composed myself and apologize for getting angry. Then we think about how we can avoid that particular flare for the rest of the day. I usually need to have more patience, and she usually needs better “listening ears”, but sometimes it’s different.

    I’m hoping it helps her to realize that she calms down pretty quickly, too, if she doesn’t try to drama it out longer. And also to see that things can be fixed even after a temper flare.

  11. erika says

    I have a similar situation to Sarah D’s (above). When I’m tired or hungry, or just generally overwhelmed, I have a hard time controlling my temper. My 5yo is prone to meltdowns under the same conditions, so I really try to model appropriate follow-up behavior. After I’ve yelled at her for something that probably wasn’t a big deal, I pull her aside to talk. We have a CALM talk about the behavior that prompted my reaction, and I apologize for yelling. I usually try to mention a meltdown of hers (“remember the other night at dinner when you kept fussing about…. and then later you turned it around and said you were sorry? That’s how mommy was feeling a few minutes ago.”) so she has some context of her own to relate it to. If I can’t be perfect all the time, at least I can give my children the skills to make amends for their own misbehaviors :)

  12. says

    Has anyone actually KEPT a new year’s resolution? My life has been strewn with broken self-help resolutions, especially around the time of the monthly curse. My eldest had the best quips to bring me back into reality: “What is this, Mom, PMS or what?”

    Now I have the answer to that “can’t do better” challenge. My book, Stress-Free Discipline, has an unusual component which retains parental authority but invites deep thinking in and help from your children.

    I had to ask myself: am I humble enough to get real help rather than pay a psychologist for years of hidden, fruitless venting? Does my child learn adult skills or accept adult responsibilities when I hide from reality?

    Or, on the contrary, am I giving my child the habit of ministering to our family for a lifetime of blessing?

    It only takes a month of practice to form a good habit which will serve family needs and help your child for a lifetime. With Christ and Stress-free Discipline you have the power and the plan to succeed. Read the rest of this entry at »