Archives For error

On Being Wrong

February 1, 2017 — Leave a comment



A few days ago I was reminded of the power of mistakes and how our responses to mistakes can be downright destructive to our learning environment and to our relationships. I also learned that reminding people of errors they have made in the past is detrimental to a relationship and the learning environment in the present.

Here is the backstory to these two insights…

My family took in an interesting talk and on the way home from the event I was casually quizzing my two boys to see if they were paying attention and to hear what they learned. My first error was to ask my boys questions that were superficial and informational. I seldom ask shallow questions and I generally am looking for something much deeper like an application, so my questions were not typical. My older son was very apprehensive in answering and after I directly challenged him, he informed me that he was hesitant to answer because he didn’t want me to make him “feel stupid” if he got the answer wrong. He knew the answer, but because I generally go much deeper he thought there was a string attached or it was a trick question. I saw the pain in his expression and I immediately knew that the issue wasn’t about the question; it was actually the festering response to a situation that happened a couple of days earlier. I immediately apologized to Levi and all I had to say was “the bearings” and he nodded his head in reference to the connection.

Levi and I were replacing the pivot bearings on his Commencal race bike and as he was pressing the main pivot bearing into the frame he wasn’t as careful as usual and the bearing was lodged in the frame incorrectly. Since the frame is aluminium and the bearing is hardened steel the potential for damage to the frame was significant, so my reaction reflected my alarm and I immediately got Levi to stop and we used the bearing puller to remove the bearing. There was a small groove in the pivot hole but the damage was not significant enough to adversely effect the performance of the frame. Levi knew he made a mistake and while I didn’t yell at or discipline Levi in any way, I did rant a bit about the need to be really careful and reminded him that an error like this could damage the $3500 frame. When I realized the frame damage wasn’t that significant I patted Levi on the back and said “we dodged a bullet” and we proceed to finish installing the main pivot bearing and the remaining bearings.

I assumed all was well because my boys have worked with me ever since they were small so I thought that Levi was used to my animated responses to problems or mistakes regardless of who was responsible. My reaction and comical statement, “shouldn’t have done that,” has been the same whether I or someone else makes the error, so I didn’t think that my reaction would have made Levi feel badly about the situation. Unfortunately, my reaction and reminder of his mistake made Levi “feel stupid” and because I missed this while we were working, this feeling of inadequacy was allowed to grow. Levi knew the value of the frame and he knew he made a mistake—I didn’t need to remind him to be careful. By reminded him of his error I treated him like a child, not a young man who is pursuing his dream and who values his bike. I spent the afternoon pondering how I was going to make this right with my son.

After Levi came back from his training session at the gym we had a talk and I again apologized for my reaction and for reminding him about the error. I also thanked him for being courageous enough to tell me that I had made him “feel stupid” and I gave him permission to remind me any time I started to stray into this territory with my actions and words. I reminded him of the talk we had when he and his brother were much younger and I gave them permission to say, “dad, you are taking the fun out this,” any time I got too carried away or too serious with their recreational activities. Levi smiled and said he would let tell me when I was blowing a situation out of proportion or reminding him of something he already knew. The strong hug and his hard slap on my back confirmed that we were OK.

Lessons learned:

  1. Informational or shallow questions can be an insult to our responsible children and learners. If you can look the answer up on Google then don’t insult your learners by asking it.
  2. Mistakes are a huge part of learning and reminding our children or learners of these errors when they already have learned from the mistake is not helpful. We can actually make our children or learners “feel stupid” or worse, make them hesitant to try. I am fortunate enough to have a relationship with my son where we could have a heart to heart talk and fix the situation with a strong hug, but you can’t always do that with your students—so it is best to try and prevent it. However, an apology to your class or specific learner will go a long way in resolving this issue. We need to make our learners feel safe enough to try, make mistakes and learn from them, not put them in a position where they are hesitant to even try to learn for fear of “feeling stupid”.
  3. Finally, letting your children or students know that even you make mistakes and are humble enough to apologize for the error of your ways lets them know that this just part of the the learning process.

Despite knowing how important errors are to learning I still struggle with being hard on myself and others around me when dealing with mistakes. Am I the only one with this problem?