At this time of year I enjoy looking through the flood of catalogs and matching up items that catch my eye with people that I know. Rarely do I actually buy these things for them, but it’s still fun. There is one slogan t-shirt I keep returning to, but I’m not sure who would receive it in the spirit I intend. Maybe they would if I wrapped it in this blog. The shirt proudly announces, “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I think I’ll make a few more.” I like the reminder that our best learning comes from our own experiences and mistakes. Or as another favorite quote of mine, attributed to Mark Twain, says, “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions.”
If we are afraid to make mistakes, we will be afraid to try anything beyond the safe and familiar, thus severely limiting ourselves and our experiences. And we lose out on those serendipitous results which come from the unintended, such as the Kellogg brothers’ creation of breakfast corn flakes from dried out grain accidentally left too long on the stove. Accepting that to err is human helps us view our missteps as natural and expected, rather than something to be avoided at all costs. Equipped with our experience-earned learning, we are able to challenge ourselves to work harder or differently and to make alterations and improvements. We can feel optimistic that we can get better and that things can change, as opposed to feeling helpless, hopeless, ashamed, or stressed by our lapses and errors.
Having the courage to try out solutions to problems means that sometimes we will blunder or fall short. In movie making there is a ‘take one’ and a ‘take two’ and perhaps a ‘take twenty-five.’ Many of these ‘takes’ end up being mis-takes, but we don’t always know which one is going to be the keeper until afterward. Perfection is a guidepost that points the way we want to head; it is not an end point that can be achieved. No one can do everything perfectly every time. And rarely can we do anything perfectly the first time(s).
Think about a toddler learning to walk. One wobbly step and kerplunk, onto her padded little bottom. Up she rises, to try again and again on unsteady legs. Should she have waited until her legs were strong enough, her coordination developed enough, to allow her to walk without all the falling down? No, without all that effort she would probably not have developed the strength and coordination to walk. Do we get mad at her for failing all those times? No, typically we find it endearing and cheer her on, take pictures, and recount her tenacity and bravery in the family story of when she learned to walk―emphasis on the learning process.
Sometime between infancy and adolescence we begin to view our children’s mistakes as misbehaviors and respond in kind, with condemnation and punishment or pity and indulgence. It would be more helpful to them if we feel and express optimism and belief in them, appreciate their strengths, and notice the efforts they put in. It is less helpful when we focus on their incompetencies or failures. Children―in fact, all of us―should have opportunities to fix things or to try again. When there is no chance to improve things, not only can we never get better, but we can become afraid to try at all.
We should set reasonable expectations for our children; expectations which are continually evolving as they grow. When we expect too little, we communicate the message that we don’t think they are capable of much. When we expect too much, we set the stage for repeated and inevitable failure. It also helps to remember that a particular mistake does not mean that the child will always mess-up; that they will never get it right. Through it all, parental love should be unconditional, never contingent on achievements or successes. When we believe in them, it helps them believe in themselves. They become ready, willing, and able to try again, rather than giving up.
But what if the mistake causes harm to someone else? Shouldn’t the “offender” be punished? I believe this compounds the harm, rather than addressing it, leaving everyone feeling hurt and upset. Instead, the attention should be on making things OK. The person who made the mistake can be held accountable for their actions without being treated like a villain or outcast. Just as we teach our children to be good winners and losers, we can also teach them to graciously negotiate both sides of the offender/offended equation. The first step is for the person who messed up to recognize and acknowledge their error. “I made a mistake, I was wrong/did something wrong.” The second step is to express regret for the harm they may have caused and apologize for what they did, however unintentional. “I am sorry that I hurt you.” Next, they should try to restore the situation as best they can by making amends and reparations. ”I will clean up the mess I made, repair or replace the vase I broke, bring the cold pack or bandaid for the bruise I left when rough-housing.” Lastly, they need to rethink what they will do next time or in the future, so they won’t make the same mistake again. “I won’t do this again, I will do it differently next time to avoid the harm I caused.” The person harmed should be open to the apologies and reparations, rather than holding on to their sense of injury. This process (recognize, regret, restore and rethink) can lead to forgiveness and a deeper connection between both parties.
As I said, I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I think I’ll make a few more. Come the New Year, my resolution is going to be just that. I want to try new things, particularly ones I’ve been afraid or embarrassed or ashamed to do because I probably will mess up, especially at first. Then I can review what worked and what didn’t and rethink how I want to approach each the next time. I’ll keep on trying, enjoying each step in the experience for what it brings. Will you join me and take some chances in your own life?
-posted by Annie Scheiner, LCMFT