Big Lessons from Small Mistakes

By Sarah Arthur Butler, May 29, 2018

I‘ve learned to laugh at myself when I make mistakes—at least the small ones. I recall admitting an email faux pas to my office mates, only to hear one of my dear colleagues help me put it in perspective. “Well, Sarah,” she said, “you are a lot easier to love when you are not perfect.” That response stuck with me. I have similarly congratulated others, in the midst of their mistakes, with “I’m glad you are human, too.” That still does not make the consequences any fun. My email to the wrong person caused deep difficulty and discomfort. Depending on the magnitude, errors might even bring us humiliation or shame. Nevertheless, somehow I still expect that I’ve already had plenty of experience and should not have to keep learning things the hard way! 

As a parent, I struggle with my children’s errors even more than my own. It is hard to watch their blunders from my vantage point of hind sight. A rare handful of our children can hear about our errors—or watch their peers mess up—and avoid the same fate. Most, however, have to learn through experience, like we did. Still, we are hoping for lessons, not losses. My pastor’s wife is realistic. She knows that her children are not immune to mistakes, so instead of praying to avoid them, she routinely prays for big lessons to result from small mistakes.

In the season I served as a middle/high school principal, we had countless examples of students making lesson-worthy errors. Each new class made their share of compromising choices and took their share of competitive shortcuts. It wasn’t useful to expect that mishaps would not happen. Instead, our leadership’s prayer was that each unfortunate situation would end in a redemptive opportunity. While consequences might need to be walked out, so could a life lesson. Handled properly, hurling hostile fists could be the perfect platform to demonstrate a healthy approach to conflict. An “innocent” prank gone wrong could become an opportunity to learn the art of apology. Cheating on an exam or a plagiarized term paper could be transformed into a commitment to integrity. Our victories were not an absence of errors or lack of discipline. Rather, our best days included stories of redemptive experiences.

There were opportunities for parents to learn, too. While being called in to visit with the Dean or Principal was mortifying for many, discussions often led to partnerships in the redemptive experience as distressed parents heard us put the magnitude of mistakes into perspective. “Cars are replaceable. Students are not. I’m so grateful this error left collateral damage without a greater loss,” brought the big-picture into view. “I’m so glad your student has an opportunity to learn from this error while they are still under your roof and this mistake won’t lead to a police record,” introduced an obstacle as an opportunity for growth. “I’m so glad they got caught so we can work on integrity now with smaller stakes. What can we do to together to make the most of this opportunity?” suggested collaboration in recovery. 

As parents and guardians of college students, we hope that our young adults have already learned major lessons in academic integrity, managing temptation, and setting priorities in the right order. However, the fact is that they are no less human than when they were in middle or high school. When the mistakes happen, what can we do to keep our own anger, fear, or dismay in check? Instead of becoming blamers and shamers, what can we do to partner with our young adults? What attitudes can we introduce to help our students reframe the crisis and learn big lessons from scalable mistakes? Here are some ideas on approach and questions parents might ask:

Help them own it. When embarrassment or shame are present, so is defensiveness. Your student may minimize their responsibility with a cover-up that only avoids pain temporarily by blaming others. A Chinese proverb says, “He who covers up his mistakes intends to make some more.” Until we can admit our flaws, we aren’t really ready to make change. 

Key Questions: “Can you tell me what happened?” “What was your part in it?” “What consequences will you have to wrestle with?”

Help them put it in perspective. You know how your student learns best. For one of my own two children, an F on an exam was a major tragedy, devastating enough to lead to determination and an overcomer attitude. For the other, a monumental error looked more like totaling a car. For me, anything that doesn’t result in long term harm to them or others is still a small mistake in the long run! 

Key Questions: “First of all, are you okay?” “Is this the end of the world? If not, we can work through this!”
Help them examine reality. We can’t really see fine print without a good magnifying glass. Without trying to rub their face in it, productive reflection can get us beyond ruminating to understanding. Key Questions: “Let’s take a step back. What went wrong? If you could do it again, what would you choose differently?” “So, what did you learn from this?”

Help them establish guard rails. Although mistakes can be one big blunder, they can also result from a series of little choices that lead to loss or failure. If the mistake is a familiar one, self-discipline will take time to get established. Accountability makes it harder to succumb to temptation and provides a barrier to repeating the same shortcuts. It is easier to succeed if it is harder to mess up. 

Key Questions: “What is a reasonable accountability plan?” “Who would you like to partner with you?”
Help them turn the page. We may have natural consequences to deal with like unplanned debt, a failed relationship, physical injury, academic discipline, or a lost job. Done is done but we still have to walk through what IS in order to takes steps into what IS AHEAD. Key Questions: “What are the next steps?” ”What are the skills we need to make progress (asking for help, self-advocacy, tracking improvement, setting goals)?” “What might a recovery plan look like?” 

Help your student find their motivation for change. Mistakes may take us on detours but they don’t have to be dead ends. Reaching goals may depend on turning the corners with a destination in mind. 

Key Questions: “Why is it important to you to do better?” “What is the end result you are hoping for?” “Who do you aspire to be at the end of this journey?” 

If transparency and ownership of mistakes makes us more approachable—even more lovable—to our peers, can we engage in conversations that encourage that for our students, too? Are we able to go beyond modeling that we are human? Can we demonstrate that when our young adults make mistakes, rather than bringing shame, we offer an opportunity to experience redemption? We can celebrate when our young adults don’t have to learn the hard way, but we can also count it a victory when mistakes are kept in perspective and we see our loved ones learn big lessons from small mistakes. 

Portrait of Sarah Butler

Sarah Arthur Butler

Assistant Dean, College of Graduate, Online & Adult Learning

Supporting non-tradional learners is my primary role at UNW. I consider it a privilege to encourage and equip staff and students in the Dual Enrollment (PSEO...

Read Full Bio
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