From Excuses to Excellence: How to Raise Responsible, Truthful Children

By Greg Baer M.D.

May 23, 2024

Parents have the responsibility of loving and teaching their children, and we can’t be casual about it. We have to give it all our attention.

One aspect of teaching children is to help them tell the truth about themselves, and we need to know that they can be very slippery about it. Instead of really listening to you and really telling the truth about themselves, often they only APPEAR to listen and SEEM to be telling the truth.

Like most people, they do the least possible. It’s a very human quality. Who doesn’t want things to be easier?

Setting Herself Up to Make Excuses

During the week Natalie asked to go to the birthday party of Mia—her friend—on Saturday, and Mom agreed to take her if she would be ready by exactly 10:00 am. Mom said she’d be leaving the driveway at 10 to get to the party on time, whether Natalie was ready or not. Natalie said it would be no problem.

Mom knew that Natalie had agreed to bring cupcakes to the party, and she knew how long that task—the cupcakes—would take, having done it herself many times. Mom had also made cupcakes with Natalie several times, so she knew that Natalie KNEW that it was a big job from beginning to end.

Making cupcakes isn’t just popping them in the oven, which takes only about 20 mins. But from beginning to end, the task is like an hour and forty-five minutes, involving assembling utensils, pans, and ingredients, along with mixing, baking, cooling, icing, and cleaning up the kitchen (or so I’ve heard, never having done it).

Considering the time for the whole process, Mom suggested that Natalie make the cupcakes Friday night, but Natalie said she wanted to watch a movie. She promised that she’d get up Saturday morning and get it done.

But she slept in Saturday morning and didn’t get up until 8:30, 90 mins before Mom would leave. Natalie’s plans were already doomed, 15 mins behind, not including getting herself ready. And that’s with NOTHING else coming up, no distractions—and there are always distractions and unforeseen things to do.

When Natalie got up, Mom asked if she would be ready. “Oh, sure,” her daughter said. Then Natalie texted a couple of friends, had a long shower, picked out the clothes she’d be wearing, and watched a YouTube video.

She started the cupcakes 30 mins before 10:00. They weren’t even in the oven by 9:30. Natalie began to sense that she wasn’t going to make it. She hurried, but you can’t hurry baking or cooling once something is in the oven. She still hadn’t put on her makeup and put together the other things she would be taking to the party.

At 9:55, Mom mentioned that she was going to wait in the car. Natalie knew she wasn’t even close to making it, so she began to beg for more time. “It won’t matter if I’m a ‘little’ late,” which was a lie because she was guaranteed to be a LOT late.” Then “I ran out of time.” Then “I couldn’t find one of the pans.” The usual excuses.

Mom brilliantly said, “I told you that I was leaving at ten, so at 10 o’clock exactly, either I leave, or I come back into the house and go back to my schedule for the morning.”

Telling the Truth About Her Excuses

Natalie didn’t make it, and she began to complain that it wasn’t “fair.” Mom said, simply, “300 words,” meaning that Natalie had to write 300 words about what she had learned.

When Natalie protested, Mom added that she could continue protesting, but then the length of the essay would increase, as would the number of subjects she’d have to address.

Natalie wrote her essay, and one of the first things she said was this:

“Today I missed Mia’s birthday party and sleepover because I didn’t manage my time well.”  

That initial sentence might appear to be evidence of learning, but as parents we MUST be aware that children have a habit of APPEARING to listen or to respond just enough to fool us. 

They play all day with that line between excellence/truth and mediocrity/half-truth. When they fool us, they think they got away with something, but then it becomes a pattern of self-deception that causes them great harm over time.

Imagine an engineering professor who let his students do their work “pretty good most of the time.” Bridges and buildings would fail, which is not so funny. Or a surgery professor who said, “That’s not too bad” to a student, when the truth is that such a level of performance would eventually harm or kill people.

The Difference Between Successful Performance and Excuses

It's time to introduce to Natalie the difference between successful performance and excuses, and to teach her the difference between explanations and excuses.

Success means you did what you said you’d do by the time appointed. 

Excuses are any information we use to justify our failing to succeed when we could simply have said, “I prepared poorly.” 

An explanation is a justification that does not involve our lack of preparation, like, “I didn’t turn in my homework on time because our house caught fire during enemy shelling, and the roads were also destroyed.”

First, let’s examine excuses. Natalie said she didn’t manage her time WELL. Let’s look at that and say, arbitrarily, that “well” scores about 8 on a scale from 0 (no performance) to 10 (perfect). Natalie’s performance was about a 1.5. Calling that “not well” is very far from the truth, a self-deceptive technique and pattern that becomes very harmful.

Second, what is the TRUTH here? From Natalie it would look like this: “I did a truly terrible job of managing my time.”

Then she talks about—or writes—every step of the night before and the morning of the event to describe all the mistakes she made, as well as the excuses she offered.

If she doesn’t see them all, Mom requires her to try again. If Mom does nothing, Natalie WILL repeat this pattern, and not just with cupcakes.

There is no shaming here, just an opportunity to learn how to be truthful, aware, and prepared. The lessons here are indispensable to a happy life.

The Truth, Reality, and Excuses

Without correction, the “truth” in Natalie’s mind looked like this:

“I did everything I could. I really wanted to go to the party. I tried to make the cupcakes. I just didn’t have enough time.”

Those beliefs are disastrous throughout life. When people have such beliefs, they:

  • are constantly late—to everything—which disrupts events, people, and more.
  • are stressed every day by the things that need to be done. People complain all their lives about stress that they unintentionally and blindly cause for themselves.
  • are never prepared adequately for anything—at home, school, work, and more.
  • are eventually dismissed by others as entirely undependable.
  • are fired from their jobs.
  • are dismissed as partners and parents.
  • raise children who are irresponsible, and the cycle continues.

It is no exaggeration at all to say that teaching children to face the truth instead of making excuses is lifesaving.

Parents Who Buy Into Clever Excuses

Regrettably, most parents buy into the clever excuses of their children and then rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes:

  • They take homework to school that a child left home. (“I forgot”)
  • They help children do their homework at last minute, perpetuating the child’s belief that they don’t have to think ahead and prepare.
  • They do the child’s chores around the house.
  • They sit and avoid the confrontation when two kids are making excuses for their fighting.

We parents tend to LET STUFF GO, and we can’t afford that. Our children can’t afford that. EVERY time we fail to teach a child what they need to know and do, we are TEACHING them how to be irresponsible or confused, or both.

How to Tell the Truth Instead of Excuses

So, what can we do?

Mom did not confuse being “nice” to Natalie with enabling her. If Mom had waited until Natalie was all prepared, and then taken her late to the party, she would have taught a long list of regrettable principles to her daughter, which most of us do every day:

  • Lack of responsibility.
  • Lack of planning.
  • Making excuses, which is a nice way of saying “lying.”
  • How to increase stress for herself and the rest of the family.
  • Total inconsideration for others—in this case, (1) making Mom wait before they left in the car and (2) demonstrating a lack of respect for those at the party.

Mom required Natalie to write out how she could have avoided all the stress and missing the party, as well as the real meaning of all the excuses she offered when time became tight. And Natalie had to re-write it until Mom was satisfied that Natalie had learned something. 

Why writing instead of talking? On many occasions, children learn more from the more deliberate and organized act of writing.

I hear people—including adults—often say versions of what Natalie did.

  • "I wasn't perfect."
  • "I could have done better."

In other words, we make our performance sound MARGINAL, when the truth is:

  • "I didn't even THINK about what I was doing."
  • "I didn't care about anybody but myself, and didn't even think of long-term consequences to me or others."
  • “I didn’t pay attention at all to doing it right.”
  • “I’m satisfied with failing and being irresponsible.”

We OWE our children our best efforts. We’re teaching them how to live in the world—responsible and loving—and if we’re satisfied with half-explanations or excuses, we doom them to stress and failure the rest of their lives. They’ll do badly in school, in their careers, and in their relationships. We can do better.

Want to learn more?

Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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