One evening, the boys were playing downstairs when I heard horrific crying. I raced down to find Adrian lying on the floor screaming.
“It was an accident!” Yelled Stephen.
“I accidentally kicked Adrian in the head!”
“How did you accidentally kick him in the head!?”
“He put a little ball in his mouth and I was going to kick the ball out of his mouth, but I missed and accidentally kicked him in the head!”
Adrian shrieked agreement as he rolled around on the floor holding his face.
“Go to bed Stephen. Now.”
“But it was an accident!” Stephen burst into tears and ran to his room.
When things calmed down, he came out of his room multiple times to try to negotiate the terms of his punishment–immediate bedtime–and explain why it wasn’t fair. Because, after all, he didn’t mean to kick Adrian in the head. It was an accident. He only meant to kick the ball out of Adrian’s mouth.
“Stephen,” I said, concluding negotiations, “It is fair. Even though you didn’t mean to kick him, it was a pretty obvious outcome. You need to think ahead and make better choices. You could have really hurt Adrian, and you need to think about consequences before you act.”
He returned tearfully to his room.
This incident, and others (mainly involving Adrian hurting the twins), have made me decide that it’s pointless to differentiate whether someone was injured by “accident” or on “purpose.” For one thing, hurting someone through plain carelessness is still not acceptable. But I also wonder if “on purpose” matters at all. That’s the first question we parents ask: “Did you hit him ON PURPOSE?”
Even the youngest child knows the “right” answer is: “No! It was an accident!”
“What is an accident?” You ask.
They have no idea. They only know grown-ups will be more mad if you say “on purpose” and less mad if you say the magic word “accident.”
Not only do children not understand the vocabulary, I don’t think they are capable of “accidents” or “purposes.” In order for the distinction between “on purpose” and “by accident,” to be meaningful, 4 things need to happen:
1) Understanding right and wrong
2) Understanding your own intentions and desires, and how they might be different from “the right thing”
3) Having the impulse control to not immediately act on your desires
4) Being able to make a conscious choice to do “what’s right” as separate from “what I want”
I don’t know when you develop those 4 things. But surely before age 5, kids only have urges. Once I asked Stephen why he did something to Adrian, and Adrian tearfully and eloquently explained, “Him did it because him wanted to!” Exactly. It was shiny, it seemed interesting, they thought it would taste good, be fun, etc. There’s something they want to do, and they do it. There aren’t the complicated intentions adults want to impose.
So my new house rule: if you hurt someone, you get punished. The end. No more “by accident” excuses.
I am hoping that this will make punishments less complicated and more effective. Ultimately, my goal is to create a little space in a boy’s brain between desire and action where he wonders, “Could this hurt someone? Should I do this?” And hopefully that space appears before he turns 25!