top of page

Dignifying a Wrong Answer

Most of my life focused on children. Although that prominence remains, I now understand that the communication skills needed for the development of healthy children match the skill set needed for communicating with our aging population.

Dignifying means providing honest feedback without hurting or embarrassing. Feedback, a helpful learning tool, can be delivered in a way that humiliates and discourages, or it can be couched in understanding. When working with children, parents, and grandparents can elicit powerful feelings by validating or hurting. I’ve learned an important lesson: Dignifying should begin at birth and last for a lifetime.

You may wonder why it is important to dignify mistakes. For most individuals, feelings of shame damage self-esteem. Telling someone of any age “You did that the wrong way,” makes her feel ashamed. The goal with children will be to provide feedback in ways that teach while protecting and dignifying self-worth. Begin by remembering that babies, toddlers, young children, teens, and adults all make mistakes. Embarrassment quickly attaches to feelings of being foolish.

Examples of Dignifying Children

Many years ago, an educator named Dr. Madeline Hunter suggested the following ways to provide feedback to children without promoting shame.

· “Close! Think about it.” (Then offer a clue.)

· “I can see why you thought that. The correct answer is . . .”

· “You almost got the puzzle piece in the right place. Try again.”

· “You are on the right track.”

· “You are close. I know you can do this!” When success comes, add, “I knew you would succeed.”

· “I understand your thinking.”

· “It takes courage to do something new.”

· “I did not ask that question clearly.”

· “You really do know how. Would you like for me to help you get started?”

· “Interesting thinking. I had not considered your idea. Thanks.”

· In some situations, simply say, “Thank you.”

· After dignifying, clarify the child’s misunderstanding.

· A smile encourages.

Almost from the beginning, most infants and babies respond to a smiling face and a cheerful “Yes!” Likewise, the word “No” will not feel loving or encouraging to an infant, baby, young child, teen, or senior citizen. In fact, sensitivity to your facial expressions and your tone of voice continues into the adult years.

In many cases, dignity depends on avoiding the word “no” unless related to safety. A tone of voice can communicate acceptance or shame. Most important will be an attitude of loving acceptance, whether talking to a child or to your grandparents.


Hunter, Madeline. Enhancing Teaching. New York: Macmillan College Publishing, 1994.


bottom of page