Just because we are parents does not mean we are infallible. We are definitely capable of bad behavior and sometimes our children see or are affected by it. If we do something wrong that we would otherwise punish our children for, should we give some sort of notice to our children that we will receive some sort of punishment also? If so, who decides said punishment? If not, how do we teach our children from the mistake that we made and still be able to stand our ground if they do the same thing and need some form of a consequence.

Edited to add from comments:

It's a conversation that came up between my wife and me so I'd thought I'd post it here. For the sake of the question, let's assume there is no law breaking occurring. For an example of willfully naughty, what if a parent did something from spite and anger like ripped up a drawing the child made during the child's tantrum or said something hurtful. For a mistake, a parent promises to wash a pair of pants but forgot to or accidentally spilled a drink on the child.

[What do you do when your child is willfully naughty vs made a mistake?]

Willfully naughty usually equals loss of privileges like TV/games and most recently being sent to their room for a period of time. Made a mistake usually equals spot correction with a redo. Making mistakes is not a cause for punishment.

  • So, are you 'willfully naughty' at any time that your children would be aware of, or are you talking about mistakes in your question?
    – WRX
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 14:51
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    @willow, Can it be both? Commented May 15, 2017 at 14:58
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    It's now long enough to be an answer. We don't "punish" in our house. We fix problems. Spill milk, clean it. Angry, leave and come back to talk when calmed. Say something hurtfull, talk about it when things are calmed down. When doing this, it is easy for the parent to model the same expected behavior when doing good and bad things. I think when people need to take responsibility for their action, the chance of doing bad things willfully are much lower.
    – the_lotus
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 11:36
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    @the_lotus I agree the word 'punishment' doesn't really fit. We take responsibility. Punishment is simply punitive and is often given without logic. "I'm bigger than you." However, I think in this question it is semantical rather than precise. It's like envy/jealousy -- the words are mixed up all the time and we have to allow that the OP means one thing when using the other word.
    – WRX
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 11:59
  • You wouldn't put a parent on the naughty step, or send them to their room for 40 minutes. The parent is still in charge and needs to be respected. Commented May 18, 2017 at 13:55

8 Answers 8


As parents we start by modelling behaviour for our children. Show by your good example what you as a family do and how you act and react when a wilful or unwillful mistake is made. Discipline should never be so harsh that a child fears admitting the truth or coming to you for help with a problem.

Okay when a parent breaks their child's trust by overreacting to a problem or destroying property, or mistakenly disciplines one child for something they did not do or someone else did:

  1. Apologise. Do not make excuses or give reasons that are really excuses. Admit the wrongdoing.
  2. Do exactly what you would do if you made that mistake with another adult -- make restitution if possible and promise to not make that mistake again.
  3. Ask if there is something (reasonable and logical) you can do to make it up to the child.

The above also applies to a parent if did do something illegal or unethical and the child discovered it -- but you are unlikely to have your apologies accepted.

If a parent does something for which there is a known reaction/consequence -- did not complete or do a chore, took something (cookies), swore, had a tantrum:

  1. Apologise. Do not make excuses or reasons that are really excuses. Admit the wrongdoing.
  2. Take the same punishment that you would have meted out to your child.
  3. Take responsibility for the action and try to make restitution for the deed. (Bake more cookies, put money in the swearing jar, take on an extra turn for the chore...)

An accident is an accident. The consequences for an accident are usually natural.

  1. Apologise.
  2. Clean up the mess.
  3. Make restitution to the best of your ability to do so.

Not doing laundry might be shared 'guilt'. A reminder before it was too late, might have been in order. Each member of a family is responsible (within reason and age being factored) to make the household work. If you must bake cupcakes for school, it makes sense for the child to remind Mum or Dad a few days in advance. If the football shirt or pants must be washed, they need to be in the right place and perhaps a reminder on Wednesday that the pants are required on Friday.

We have a chore board for the family and even before she could write, our daughter would ask for an item to be added to the list. We have a double check system -- we check the list leaving home in the mornings/at breakfast and returning home in the evenings or at dinner time. I have always had too many things on my plate to remember all the details, so a list is imperative. It would have to be willful on my part not to do something I had agreed to as long as I was capable of getting out of bed.

All people make mistakes and errors. All of us are sometimes guilty of knowingly breaking a rule -- speeding, incomplete stops, swearing at other drivers come easily to mind. If you tell your child that being law-abiding is important -- model it. If you don't, you are not being fair when you expect children to follow rules when you plainly do not. You have to be conscientious of consequences when you do things in front of your children.

Teach your children to take responsibility by taking it yourselves.

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    Snap! One minute apart, and the same advice! +1 Commented May 15, 2017 at 15:56
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    This is a very good advice. Also, applying the same punishment to the adults may have some funny, albeit unintended, consequences. One of my younglings put my father (her grandfather) on timeout for swearing, while he was watching a soccer match at our house. Our rule says that the timeout lasts 1 minute per year of age. My dad wasn't amused, but we laughed hard when he had to stay for almost an hour sitting on the timeout chair and thus lost the most part of the game he was watching.
    – T. Sar
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:37
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    No, he was 58 at the time - enough to lose the most interesting parts of a soccer match xD
    – T. Sar
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:42
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    @TSar it is awesome that your whole family, especially Grandad, found it quite reasonable and normal that the same rules apply to everyone.
    – RedSonja
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 9:00
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    I think your last line hits the nail on the head. "Teach your children to take responsibility by taking it yourselves." I feel as adults, it's harder for us to do so, especially in front of our kids and even more so when it was them we wronged. Commented May 16, 2017 at 12:05

Parents make mistakes, parents make bad decisions, and they suffer the consequences. After all, that's why we teach our children that consequences result from bad decisions and can often be unpleasant. We are not all angels and never will be.

how do we teach our children from the mistake that we made and still be able to stand our ground if they do the same thing and need some form of a consequence.

We need to model good behavior while acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes and bad decisions. Acknowledging that perfection is not the end result of discipline, but rather what is of importance is an approach to life in general is what makes our mistakes forgivable.

We make mistakes; we do wrong.
We apologize.
We promise to be more careful in the future.
When restitution is in order, we demonstrate that as well.

Parents need to model the right behaviors, so when a child witnesses a wrong behavior but it doesn't affect them directly, by all means, 'fess up and have a discussion about your bad decision. Give yourself a consequence (for example, many people fine themselves for swearing: money goes into a "swearing jar".)

Hypocrisy is something that kids pick up on very quickly. So yes, when witnessed, act how you want your kids to act.

Regarding bad behavior that they did not witness or suffer consequences for, would I confess to my children that I ran a stop sign and didn't get caught? No. I would not burden them with that information.

However, if I got caught, I would certainly let them know about my "punishment". The ticket, the points off my driver's license, the increase in my insurance premiums, the mention in the local paper, all because of a bad decision. After all, this is why we're teaching them about consequences.

Showing them that you have consequences for bad behavior is absolutely appropriate and reinforces why we set the limits on kids that we do.

Similarly, my kids certainly didn't openly admit all their transgressions to me, nor did I expect them to. One of my kids cheated in school. He didn't confess. Once I caught him, once the school caught him. His consequences were very significant, even though I was not the injured party.

In the end, I think it comes down to modeling the behavior you want in your kids and learning of life lessons. Our kids are not our confessors, but if we transgress against them or in their sight, we do what we want them to do. In my case, that was a sincere apology, a promise to try to avoid that behavior in the future, and restitution when possible.

Edited to address the OP's comments.

I once blamed my children for something they didn't do, and worse yet, I didn't believe them when they said they didn't do it (I don't remember this myself; my kids told me this a few years ago.) I mistakenly disciplined them for the action and for what I believed was a lie. When I found out that it was my husband who committed the offense, my kids told me that not only did I apologize profusely, but that I gave them each a hefty sum of money to pay them for the time they put in as a consequence. I was shocked by the amount they quoted; I can only imagine I was following my own principles of making restitution significant.

  • I'm not entirely sure that not providing the information when you weren't caught is a good approach. It's like selectively picking evidence and expecting a good rational calculation of probabilities as a result - no matter what you do, the data is skewed. What happens when the kids realize that not being caught may have no (visible) consequences? Is it okay to do bad things if you don't get caught? The punishment is the trivial part of running a stop sign - the real consequences are in the (potential or real) effect on yourself and other drivers, like, say, crashing into a kid on a bike.
    – Luaan
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 14:31
  • I did not advocate telling kids if I was not caught. "Regarding bad behavior that they did not witness or suffer consequences for, would I confess to my children that I ran a stop sign and didn't get caught? No. I would not burden them with that information." Might you possibly have missed this, or am I misinterpreting your point? Commented May 16, 2017 at 15:02
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    That's exactly the bit I'm talking about. Rationality 101 - selectively constraining evidence allows you to "prove" anything you want. By not showing that bad things are still bad even if the kids didn't see you, you're impacting their ability to judge bad things they do when they aren't "caught". If a kid breaks a vase without being seen, cleans it up and conceals it from you, does that make the breaking ok? Would you consider it proper for the kid to do that, and not apologize? The consequence shouldn't be "I feel shame for being caught", rather "I'm sorry I broke the vase".
    – Luaan
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 8:45
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    Oh, @Luaan - I did misinterpret your comment. I think the guilt we feel - or should feel - when we do wrong (and the threat of being discovered) is enough of a reminder to teach. No need to confess everything. Commented May 17, 2017 at 13:27

As parents, we are responsible for getting our children ready for adulthood. In that endeavor, sometimes corrective actions are warranted, discouraging improper behavior and encouraging proper behavior.

Parents have the authority to mete out proper punishments because they have the responsibility for rearing their children and instilling values and good habits, and sometimes punishments are an effective way to do that. But the inverse is not true.

This doesn't mean parents are infallible (any good parent knows that). That said, children – particularly young children – don't need to have the added pressure of figuring out how to correct the behavior of their parents.

I suppose it's possible for older children to help hold their parents accountable in some ways (e.g., if my son was on the high school cross-country team, and I wanted to develop better exercise habits, I might enlist some help from my son). But I don't think it would be proper for him to pick a "punishment" for me if I didn't make my fitness goals for the week, unless it was something good-natured and agreed-upon in advance.

As adults, we are ultimately responsible for our own behavior. Bad decisions have their own consequences, and those are punishment enough. If you don't pay your bills on time, for example, you pay late fees. I think the best thing to do is use your mistakes as teachable moments, so that children can see what happens when rules are not followed.

  • Hi J.R. I remember a mother who used to ask her children what their punishments should be and the children were way harder on themselves than any normal parent. I don't think the children are being asked to mete out or decide the punishments here. Your "teachable moments" observation is spot on.
    – WRX
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 16:36
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    Spot on, well stated. Commented May 15, 2017 at 17:22
  • I don't get the DV...
    – WRX
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 17:57
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    @Willow - I expected at least one.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:05
  • @SomeShinyObject: DV=Downvote, here on stackexchange.com.
    – sleske
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 8:51

I personally think this is a really good way to handle rules and punishment, and apply it with my own kids (in as far as we have rules, which admittedly we don't have many of).

Regarding who decides on the punishment, I think it's important that it's clear from the start what the punishment for bad behavior is. If you only hear what happens as punishment after you did it, it will always feel arbitrary. Having to punish yourself won't make it more arbitrary.

What this really reinforces for kids is that the rules apply to everyone and are the same for everyone. As such; you should give yourself the exact same punishment as the child would have gotten, even when this makes little sense. (Yes, you should ground yourself or send yourself to your room if that's the normal punishment)

One of the rules in my household is that you don't get dessert unless you finish your plate, for example. This rule is applied to everyone (old enough to understand it; the toddler is exempt for now) which means that if I don't finish my plate for whatever reason, I don't get a dessert. That I could just have some dessert after the kids go to bed does not change it; the goal is to show that rules apply to everyone equally.

  • "you don't get dessert unless you finish your plate," In our home it would start with, "do not take more than you will eat", and then loss of dessert for not eating a reasonable portion and the requirements for nutrition. I like the part about the same consequences for all (based on age of course).
    – WRX
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 15:58
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    @Willow yeah, we don't particularly like that rule, but it's the only thing so far that has proven effective in getting her to eat veggies. Because "do not take more than you eat" means she only takes what she likes.
    – Erik
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:09
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    I can see that -- we were luckier because we had a grad student living with us -- a nutritionist. He made our rule that a serving spoon from each colour was the minimum amount. That covered meat, salad or veg and grain/starch. Is it too late to change the rule?
    – WRX
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:26
  • And what happens when the kids notice you took your dessert later (say, the kids gets awakened by some noise and goes to pick up a glass or water or whatever)? You say the rules apply to everyone equally, but it really contains the hidden "unless the kids are there to see it".
    – Luaan
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 14:38
  • @Luaan we usually don't actually take the dessert later. The point is more that we could (because who would stop us?) but that from the child's point of view, we are "punished" by choosing not to take dessert.
    – Erik
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 14:44

Sorry to waffle, but "No," and "Yes."

I think the basis of the my answer is to ask a rhetorical question - why do we punish kids? Is it to be vengeful? Is it to rigidly enforce a code of conduct for the sake of obedience and order?

Or, is it to teach them important life lessons and to set healthy boundaries?

So, if a parent does something that they wouldn't want their child to do, and they recognize and understand that this is something they feel isn't right, what purpose would some form of arbitrary punishment serve, if the parent is already self-aware?

Furthermore, part of establishing rules of the household is that the parent sets up an atmosphere and environment that they feel is best for the family unit. Once a child is an adult, and they are on their own, they are no longer subject to the rules of the parents, unless they choose to follow them on their own. By the same token, as the person who decides what the rules are and when they should be followed, the parents are completely entitled to modify their own behavior as they see fit.

There is no one to punish them, because, unlike a child, the parent is wholly responsible for their own actions, and bear the brunt of any consequences for their actions. If my child burns down the neighbor's house, there will be punishment for them, but my own liberty and livelihood are also at risk because, as an adult, I am responsible for the behavior of my child. As such, sometimes rules have to be set and punishments must be meted out on the household level.

So, "no," no formal self-punishment is needed. To the degree that the adult knows what they did was wrong, and the degree to which the consequences are born by the adult, they've already been punished.

If, however, one wants to set up a system so the child, who does not understand that point of view, sees and understands that rules are enforced fairly and universally, one could create something similar. Maybe the parent tells the child that the TV is off for the parent this evening, because of behavior. Or maybe the parent stays in or does some household chores. The important part of that system would be pointing out that is what's happening, or the child might not notice and the entire point of carrying out that exercise would be wasted.

In my household's not too distant past, when something was done in anger or lack of patience that hurt the feelings of a child, it was more important to sit down, apologize, and openly acknowledge that what was done by the parent was wrong, and just as wrong as if the child had done it. Not because the parent was "bad" or "naughty," but because the child's feelings were hurt, when they didn't have to be, and the parent doesn't want that for someone they care about.

Usually, that ended with asking what could be done to atone - not as some sort of punishment, but usually it was some kind of carving out of extra time for a shared activity that the child wanted to do with the parent.


First rule of parent club is that parents MAKE the rules.

No, parents do not get punishment also. Otherwise, you will have to either punish yourself, or you must let your child punish you. Which is the best example? Teaching your child to punish themselves for making mistakes, or teaching your child that they can punish you for not following their rules? I say the best option is to positively reward rule-following while discouraging rule-breaking.

I think everyone would agree that a toddler should not be allowed to cross a busy street alone, but certainly a parent should be allowed to do so. Also, a toddler should not be allowed to watch violent/sexy TV shows at 12AM, but it's OK for a parent. However a toddler should not hit a sibling or friend, and neither should a parent. But in the toddler's mind, there literally is no distinction between these situations. For them, actions are either allowed or not allowed according to what Mom/Dad say.

The teenage years is when they start to learn the various distinctions (and fight you about it). At that point you as a parent have to decide again where the line is drawn. I guess it's a continuously moving line.

The point to make at all times is that "I am the parent, and the rule you must follow is [insert your rule]".

To explicitly answer your question, emphatically, NO, parents should not be punished for doing things that our kids are not allowed to or should not do. Including acts of anger or other acts the child might see as "unfair". The point is you are the parent (rule setter) and they are the children (rule followers). From a toddler's point of view, tearing up a drawing out of anger is as arbitrary as kicking a friend out of anger. The difference is that parents know what they did was wrong and kids need to learn that what they did was wrong.

As an example, my 2 year old is not allowed to use glass cup at dinner, but my 5 year is. Should I punish my 5 year for using a glass cup just because my 2 year is not allowed to? Of course not. But there also is a spectrum of rules and "OK" actions depending on age and other factors.

Realistically, everyone follows different rules depending on their classifications (age/status/position/ability/etc). I try teach my children they must follow the rules that apply to them. But if they don't like their rules, then they have to either wait for their classification to change (i.e. get older or learn new skills like clean the dishes or go to college) or somehow change the rules.

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    You have a valid opinion, but are supporting it with straw men (intentionally or unintentionally). The OP is asking about misdeeds, where you are using dangerous situations or morally ambiguous ones beyond the understanding of the child. A better answer would be to the OP's own example: hurting the feelings of his child by a display of anger. Commented May 15, 2017 at 20:49
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    Thanks for your comment. I think I explained my point in the edits. Mainly, adults know what is wrong and kids need to be taught what is wrong; while at the same time parents must maintain their authority.
    – gogators
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 21:54
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    Don't you think it is good for parents to apologize if they do something they know is wrong (like tearing up a child's drawing)? That would model good behavior for the child. Just teaching a child to be obedient and follow authority doesn't ensure that the child will have good values and morals.
    – sumelic
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 22:20
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    I think we maintain respect and authority by modelling the way 'we do things as a family' rather than "maintaining authority", which to me sounds like you are saying, "because I said so". If a parent cannot clearly express the reason for their actions, then the problem lies with the parent. (I am not talking about being asked to repeat ad nauseum -- just having a reasoned response for parental answers and actions.)
    – WRX
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 13:00
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    @Willow In my experience, repeating ad nauseam is sometimes caused by the adult not understanding the question or the kid not understanding the answer (among the other common reasons like frustration, fun or boredom). It takes some time for kids to realize that asking the exact same question over and over is unlikely to get them the answer they are looking for - indeed, it seems to me that a significant (if not major) portion of adults don't realize that if your approach doesn't work, you need to try a different approach. I've had much success with considering kids misunderstandings honest.
    – Luaan
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 14:43

A parent should lead by example. One father I knew used a "swear" word.

His nine-year-old daughter asked him, "Daddy, did you use a bad word? Is that one of the words we kids aren't supposed to use?"

The man answered honestly, "Yes ma'am. I was swearing, I shouldn't have been, and I was wrong. I'm sorry."

His child learned a valuable lesson that day.


Yes parents and other family members do err. It is a better option to admit it and rectify as much as possible. I keep an idea about it in my mind for long time.

How about establishing a "judge" - an experienced person, can be retired teacher or judge or anyone competent in the matter.

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