No Second Chances: How to Handle Mistakes You Can’t Fix

By Kimberly Feltes Taylor and Eric Braun, coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes

No Second Chances: How to Handle Mistakes You Can’t FixWe’ve all had moments when we wished we could get a second chance to prove that we know better or can do better.

And often, we get that second chance. After showing up late to meet a friend, we make sure to be there early the next time. Or if we forget a dear aunt’s birthday, we apologize and bake an extra-special cake, and all is forgiven.

But, a hard fact of life is that sometimes we don’t get a second chance. We send in a resume with a typo, and . . . yikes. That job option is down the drain. Or, in our haste to reply, we answer the wrong text thread and say something less-than-charitable about a friend who we didn’t realize was on that thread. Uh-oh, make that “former friend.” As adults, we understand that this is sometimes how it goes. And we move on (hopefully having learned to do better the next time—like reading our resume a fourth time before sending it off, or double-checking which thread we’re on, or, you know, thinking twice about making that less-than-charitable comment at all). That doesn’t mean moving on is easy. Many times, it’s really hard. Crushing, even. But with our life experience and maturity (ha ha), we take it on the chin and absorb that hard lesson.

For kids, however, learning this lesson can be even more difficult, especially when it involves friendships or other social situations. They don’t have our experience or maturity, and the situation might just seem terribly unfair. A kid might think, “I’m a good person! I should get a second chance.”

As parents and educators, how can we guide our kids through those tough moments in life when there is no second chance after making a mistake? Consider this scenario:

Barry is jealous that his friend Zeke is the star of the cross-country team. He tries to be a good sport about it. After all, Zeke is his friend. He should be happy for him.

But after one race, when Zeke acts like he’s king of the castle after winning by two minutes, the green-eyed monster takes hold of Barry. He whispers to another friend, “Did you know that Zeke cut through the woods in that last section?”

By the next morning, the rumor has spread throughout the school. As Zeke walks down the hallway, other kids stare at him. They whisper to each other, “I always knew he was a cheater!” Even the coach pulls him aside after practice to ask about the rumor. She believes him when he tells her he didn’t cheat, but the whole thing is embarrassing and infuriating. Even after the rumors die down, Zeke still feels the cloud of being seen as a cheater hanging over him. He is determined to learn who started the rumor. And soon enough, he figures it out.

By this time, Barry feels terrible. He hates what he did. He had no idea that his one weak moment would lead to such a hard time for Zeke. It’s not at all what he wanted. He apologizes to Zeke and acknowledges that what he did was terrible. He says he’ll never do anything like that again. And he means it. He even goes to the coach and explains everything.

But Zeke wants to nothing to do with Barry. Zeke is never going to forgive him. Barry doesn’t get a second chance with Zeke, and to make things worse, he feels like a bad person.

Ideally, when kids make a mistake, they have the opportunity to own it, fix it, and learn from it. But for some mistakes—the no-second-chances mistakes—sometimes all you can do is own it and learn from it. And understanding that you can’t fix it is often a big part of learning from it.

If you’re the parent or teacher of a student like Barry who has owned their mistake and apologized for it, you can support them by helping them accept that they can’t fix it while guiding them to learn from it. One of the most important ways to talk about that is to help the child explore why they did what they did. This can be tricky if the child is feeling defensive. Remind them that you know they are not a bad person—they just made a mistake. Everyone does that sometimes. But gently exploring what happened and why can help them make smarter decisions in the future.

Here are some questions you might ask:

  • Why do you think your relationship with ___ has changed?
  • How do you think ___ feels? How would you feel if someone did that to you?
  • Why do you think a mistake like that damages a friendship or causes problems?
  • Who else might you owe an apology or explanation? Why?
  • Is there anything else you can do to try to make things better? What?
  • How can you show the world that you won’t make the same kind of mistake again?

A no-second-chances mistake can be overwhelming for kids. It can eat at their self-esteem. It can make them feel bad about themselves. So in addition to helping them learn from the mistake, it’s important to reinforce positive ideas. Remind children of good things they have done. Point out all the people in their world who care about them. Explain that everyone makes mistakes and what’s most important is how you handle them. Reassure them that the flurry around the mistake will eventually die down. Share one or more of your own experiences with no-second-chances mistakes to help them see that a person can come out of this experience okay.

Kimberly Feltes TaylorKimberly Feltes Taylor has written over 15 books for young people, including the popular Yolanda series of advice books, which provide tips for dealing with peer pressure, family issues, friendship problems, money management, and workplace dilemmas. Kim has also written dozens of classroom magazine articles. She lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.


Author Eric BraunEric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.

How to Take the ACHE Out of MistakesKimberly and Eric are coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes

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