What to Say When Your Teen Makes a Big Mistake

A while back, while I made dinner and my son kept me company in the kitchen, I mentioned someone I know who spills a lot.

“Spills a lot?” he asked.
“Some people trip. She spills,” I said. “A lot. It’s interesting.”

What parents should do when their teens make mistakes.

It was a half-comment, I was probably reading a recipe at the time. But my son was thoughtful. “When I’m a parent, I’m going to make sure the one thing I do when my kid spills a drink is say, ‘No big deal.’”

When teenagers tell you they’ll let their kids hang around with anyone they want, or stay out until they feel like coming home, you shrug. When an adult child starts a sentence with, “When I’m a parent,” you look up.

Of course, I tried to recall the incident(s) which might have led my son to make such a pledge to his future child and asked, “How often were we that upset over a spilled drink?”

“You never were,” he said, “But I see parents do it all the time at baseball games, at the movies…scold kids for doing things they didn’t want to do in the first place. Nobody wants to spill a drink. It isn’t in anyone’s nature to want to spill anything. When it happens to my kid, I’m not going to punish him or her. I’ll be sympathetic.”

I was touched to imagine my son being that parent, more concerned about the feelings of a child than the fleeting inconvenience of a puddle to clean up. I remembered his eyes meeting mine when there was a spill, and how I hurried to fetch the paper towels saying, “Don’t worry about it.”

Because I know, for many children, it feels worse to make the mistake that affects another, than to deal with how their mistake affects you.

It was a timely exchange because the following night, as he hurried to get to a semi-formal baseball function, my younger son jumped into his car, threw it into reverse, stomped the gas and backed straight into the front of my car – hard.

[More on what parents need to remember when parenting teens here.]

From the kitchen window, I saw the whole thing. He leapt from the car and raced up the stairs to the house, where I was waiting. He held his head, eyes like quarters.

“I hit your car,” he said, “OH MY GOD. I hit your car.”
“I saw that,” I said.
“I am so sorry.”
“Let me take a look,” I said.
My car looked like it had ejected parts of its insides through the headlight.
“Wow,” I said.
“I’ll pay for it,” said my financially dependent child.
“No, that’s okay, but thank you,” I said. “Go do your dinner thing. We’ll talk about it later.”
“I’ll give you my car,” he said.
I hugged him. “I wish I didn’t know how you feel right now, but I do. It’s okay.”

I made him leave, grateful that he wasn’t hurt, grateful that this had occurred in our driveway and not in a busy parking lot, and, of course, grateful that I wasn’t standing in front of the fender when he backed up.

Someday my son will probably have a child who drives into something. He won’t remember the lecture or punishment I never delivered. He will remember how he felt when his mistake created a loss for someone else. And maybe, when his child is standing there holding his head, with eyes like quarters, waiting for the reaction that still won’t be as bad as the way he already feels, my son will offer a hug instead of something less useful.

It was the day before my birthday, a day my children find tedious because I already have everything I can use. And yet, smashed fender and all, didn’t I wind up with a little gift of insight from a child launched, and a parent in the making, that I’ll remember always.

Nobody wants to spill a drink.

Originally appeared at Worth Mentioning, March, 2013


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About Susan Bonifant

Susan Bonifant was an essayist, novelist and mother of four grown children who wrote about life after the last college drop off. Her work appeared in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, The Concord Monitor and PurpleClover.com.
(Susan is greatly missed 1958-2020.)

Susan lives with her husband and writer-cat, Gus, in Hopkinton, NH. Visit her blog, "Worth Mentioning," at atticview.blogspot.com.

Read more posts by Susan

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