You break it, you buy it?

Picture this: You call your 7-year-old for dinner, and she comes running into the dining room, even though she knows your house rule is no running inside — and drops your iPhone on the floor.

Boom, cracked screen.

Or how about this: While emptying the dishwasher, your 10-year-old gets a little hyper and puts all his weight on the open silverware drawer, warping the rails so it won’t shut right any more.

“Sorry,” your son says sheepishly and slinks out of the room, leaving you to not only fuss with the drawer, but also finish putting away dishes.

Accidents happen. No one knows that better than parents. But when should our kids take responsibility for accidents they cause that cost money to fix? Your first-grader probably isn’t buying you a new iPhone, but does that mean she has no stake in what she did?

Learning from mistakes

What matters most to my wife and me isn’t the money, but that our kids learn something from the experience. Actions have consequences. Money doesn’t grow on trees.

Every situation is different, and so is every kid. How you hold your kids accountable for their mistakes is up to you. But here are some questions to help you think about it.

  • What’s your child ready for emotionally?
  • What happened? (Was it a total accident? Was your child doing something he shouldn’t have been?)
  • How expensive or important was the item?
  • How do you handle chores and allowance?


Allowance and chores

In the case of the 7-year-old who cracks your phone, it was an honest mistake, even though she knows better than to run inside if that’s your house rule.

That item surely is expensive, but even if she does earn an allowance, you’ll be garnishing her wages until she’s dating if she pays it off on her own.

You might have a talk about the rule she broke and show her exactly how much you’ll end up paying for the repair or new purchase.

I wouldn’t want to guilt-trip her, but I’d want her to know it was a serious thing. In this case, you might consider withholding allowance for a week or two.

In the case of the tweaked drawer, I’m a softy — I like that the 10-year-old was helping with a chore. But in my book, he’s old enough to play a part in making it better.

Take him to the hardware store to buy the necessary parts, and consider splitting the cost with him. Then the two of you can sit down and fix it together. As with the iPhone, his financial contribution is mostly symbolic, but important. And that little mistake can turn into a bonding moment!

If your kids do chores to earn money, you can have them do extra work to pay their share. If they get an allowance regardless of chores, you can still have them do extra work: Call it paying for their deed with their time.

Making amends to others

What if your kid does damage at someone else’s house? You pick up your boy from a play date and learn that he punched a hole in the wall with a claw hammer.

Save your questions about why he was playing with a claw hammer for later, and immediately offer to pay for the repair. Probably your friend will refuse, saying it’s no big deal.

Protest as much as you feel you should, but for smaller things it’s probably OK to let the financial part go. More important is your relationship with the other parent and, again, what your child learns.

No matter what the cost of the damage, or who ends up paying, have your little Bob the Builder write (or dictate to you) a note of apology to the other parent.

If your child does more substantial damage at a friend’s house, it’s probably more important for you to insist the friend let you pay.

Get the payment settled as quickly as possible, even if your child is paying you back some or all of it later. (Don’t make the other family wait for him to sell his LEGOs in order to scrape up the cash.)

When these things happen, my hope is that I remember to keep my cool and treat my kids thoughtfully and respectfully.

If I do, they’re likely to learn thoughtfulness and respect — as well as a little financial responsibility.