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Modeling Making Mistakes: Police, Toddlers & "Red" Choices

My son is 3 1/2, and he's been learning about red choices vs. green choices at school. In an effort to support the language they use at school, we've adopted the language for use at home. We often talk about and role play the difference in red choices and green choices, and we talk about the consequences that follow choices - both desirable and undesirable. It's been really fascinating to see him start to recognize both the "red" and "green" choice in different situations.

Recently, I was driving him to preschool. We're usually the family that gets there 5 minutes before class starts, and I've been working really hard on arriving earlier so he doesn't feel rushed. I was feeling really proud of myself for getting out of the house sooner.

As I was deep in thought while driving, I looked in my rearview mirror and realized a motorcycle cop had his lights on behind me. In confusion, I pulled over. "Maybe I was going 40 on accident," I thought. I knew I wasn't going super fast, but also wasn't sure how fast I had been going. I was sort of on "autopilot."

As we pulled over, my son inquired what was happening, and I told him the policeman needed to talk to mommy because I may have done something wrong. I turned my car off, rolled down the window, and waited.

As the officer approached the car, my son yelled, "MOMMY MADE A RED CHOICE!"

Right in that front seat, I thought I might die of embarrassment, but I grinned and listened for the officer to inform me that my "red choice" was going 31 in a 20 mile per hour active school zone. Palm to face.

He asked for my driver's license, and of course, on that day, I had forgotten to grab my bag, so I said, "I'm sorry. I don't have it with me." He asked for my driver's license number, I supplied it, and he said "You need to carry that with you. I'll be right back."

And I heard a whisper from the back seat say, "That's another red choice!"

Now what I wanted to do in that moment was say, "LISTEN KID, LET'S TALK ABOUT ALL THE RED CHOICES YOU'VE BEEN MAKING!"

But instead, I took a deep breath and realized it was an opportunity to model what it looks like to mess up and own it. I said, "You're right. Mommy made some red choices this morning. I wasn't paying attention and I made a mistake and I was going too fast. And then I forgot my driver's license. So now I have consequences. Mommy got a ticket and I'm upset about it."

He responded with, "It's okay mommy. Accidents happen. Next time you can make a green choice."

The preciousness of his response reminded me of two things:

  1. When I mess up, he's watching me to see how I handle it. Do I make excuses and skirt responsibility, or do I own up to what I did wrong? Do I verbally beat myself up or do I recognize I'm imperfect and accept that reality? Do I accept the consequences? Do I show remorse for messing up?

  2. He's listening to what I say when he messes up. The way he responded to me is exactly how I respond to him when he makes a mistake - most of the time. Am I perfect? No. Do I sometimes overreact and say things I wish I didn't? Yes. But most of the time, I respond with gentleness and care, and that's what he remembered when I messed up.

On reflection, I'm so thankful he got to see me make a big mistake - even though he went to school and told everyone that "Mommy made a red choice and had to talk to a policeman." :)

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