Making Mistakes

I was pondering some of the interesting things we say to console people or to apparently ease pain or suffering in the moment when a mistake is made. One that immediately springs to mind is ‘everyone makes mistakes, it’s ok’. It seems like a harmless phrase, and quite appropriate when someone has upended the apple cart or failed an exam or mucked up in some way. We do need reminding that mistakes happen and life goes on, somehow. Here’s a great example. A friend sent me a link to a YouTube clip. The clip was from a live concert and featured Robert Downey Junior singing a duet with Sting. It was titled - Is there nothing this man can’t do! I have always admired this man and I can’t say exactly why! It does help that he is incredibly attractive, appears to be smart and has a wicked sense of humour, yet the defining feature for me is he faced up to his mistakes. He publicly admitted his previous problems with addictions and moved forward. He has indeed turned his life around and is probably more successful now than ever before and certainly more so than many of his fellow actors from that brat pack era. So why is this, how was he able to make this incredible comeback when so many others failed and fell by the wayside? Consider the harsh abuse and rude comments made on Facebook when many in the public eye make a ‘mistake’. We are currently dealing with the divide and conquer mentality in regards to masks and vaccinations and no one, it seems is exempt from being hounded for something! So what made the difference in Downey’s case?

I do not recall what was circulating originally when Downey first fell from grace, but it doesn’t take much imagination to believe he would have been slammed by the press and social media.The difference is he seems to have some sort of resilience that has enabled him to rise above the barrage and navigate his way back to health.Behaviourally, you could say he has a history of reinforcement for keeping going! It may also be that he was surrounded by people that supported this rise from the ashes, and provided further reinforcement for his’ keep going’ behaviour.

So if mistakes truly are a part of life we need to adjust our attitude towards mistakes. Society judges mistakes as either acceptable or not – after all that is what our entire judicial system is based on – did you intend to do it or was it a mistake and if so does society accept it as a mistake or not? We then punish the person accordingly; although as behavioural science tells us a punisher is defined by its effect on behaviour not on what we believe is punishing. For many, prison doesn’t act as a punisher, therefore it doesn’t reduce the unwanted behaviour hence the high degree of reoffending. However imagine how difficult it is for children to discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable mistakes when they are bombarded by our emotive judgmental comments about what is happening in the media and in politics? What do they base their learning on? Clear guidelines? Easy to follow instructions? No, they are probably basing it on what you can get away with or whatever happens to resonate with them at the time. If we are attempting to help children understand and acknowledge their mistakes we can’t allow judgment to enter into what is acceptable and what isn’t – there is no grey area, you made an error you corrected, it move on! Next time you find the judgment alarm going off you might like to try my game and ask yourself the following question….do I want to be right or kind? I have found this enormously helpful in changing my behaviour towards apparently aggressive drivers, rude shop assistants, and in potentially confrontational encounters. By choosing to be kind we may find ourselves changing our behaviour for the better. Maybe starting with accepting these small mistakes we can train ourselves to consider that all mistakes may not be equal but how we deal with them must be based on our behaviour being consistent, and not on the size or severity of mistake.

So how does this transfer to the real world as parents/teachers? How can we help children to acknowledge their mistakes? Here are a few suggestions.

· Encourage children to self-assess their work – ask for their thoughts and opinions on their work.

· Remove erasers – face up to errors and use them to your advantage especially in art work!

· Use a draft book for writing - this may help them to get ideas down in any format before they start editing – allowing for ‘mistakes’

· Be sure to acknowledge any attempt to apologise or fix the problem without your support. Often children are quite capable of sorting their own problems out if the adult conveys the expectation that they will do so.

· Acknowledge your own mistakes – for example discuss spelling difficulties and use the dictionary in front of them to make corrections

· If you make a mistake involving a child admit to it immediately – this is modelling how to own up to a mistake in a responsible manner. For example if you mistakenly reprimand a child apologise! I have often seen adults rationalise, even though they have made a mistake and told off the wrong child!

While this is only a small selection of examples it is the beginning of taking responsibility for your actions and modelling the correct behaviour for our children.

Unfortunately as a society we are caught up in the emotive concept of retribution and just desserts and requiring people to learn a lesson. Behavioural science has shown us that learning a lesson requires an effective reinforcer and a systematic approach to training, rather than the trainer’s personal judgment calls! How different our life might be if we took to heart that famous quote - let he who is without sin cast the first stone – Surely it is the ultimate rule to live by. The message remains the same - change our own behaviour before we attempt to change others. Another behavioural byproduct of changing your behaviour is we might notice opportunities to say something nice to someone. Perhaps if we focused on what people are doing that we like and appreciate, we might see more of it! Meanwhile rock on Robert Downey Junior!

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