We all do stupid things about which we are ashamed. The real question is how we are going to conduct ourselves when that inevitably happens. This matters because how we act in these situations reveals our moral compass -- whether we have the ability to take responsibility for ourselves, or whether we will remain ethically stunted, perhaps for our entire lives.
Teaching kids what to do “when things go wrong” is actually a fairly straightforward matter that parents and schools can easily address. One of the great things about working in a middle school, for example, is that there are plenty of opportunities to create “teachable moments” around a host of transgressions that inevitably arise. :) We ended up walking our students through a little protocol as follows:
First, we remind them that we all do things we are not proud of -- even as adults. Sometimes we act impulsively without thinking things through. Sometimes we accept invitations from peers to do stupid things. Messing up is normal. What matters most is how you conduct yourself when you inevitably mess up.
Second we explain - require, in fact - that they take direct responsibility for their own actions by admitting that they did, in fact, throw the rock through the window, or call that person a nasty name, or whatever it was. This is the most difficult step because, when we are called out on our behaviour, our immediate instinct is to try and dodge the bullet, and flat out deny the allegation or point the finger elsewhere. It takes a certain amount of internal fortitude to admit that you have done something wrong. As challenging as this is, it is nonetheless a determining moment in a person’s moral development. If we can get kids through this step -- with regard to relatively innocuous transgressions at an early age -- then we can lay the foundation for their integrity as adults.
The third thing that needs to happen are, of course, consequences. What we do affects the people or environment around us. Creating consequences is a way to underline this. The students who leave garbage on the ferry need to spend the next afternoon back on the ferry working with the crew washing tables and vacuuming. The student who makes an egregious mess in the school needs to come back on Saturday to wash desks.
Fourth, when things go wrong, we need to impress upon our kids the importance of trying to make amends -- to apologize to their colleagues, to vacuum the ferry, to wash the desks, however we do this. We also need to point out to them the hard reality that not everyone will accept our gestures or apologies, which yields the parallel lesson that we can only ever be responsible for our own actions.
Fifth, we can and should encourage our kids to use these undoubtedly uncomfortable mini-episodes to learn from their mistakes -- not just the obvious lessons that you should not do such and such, but the deeper lesson about how actions affect others and how you want to conduct yourself in the world.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can instruct and encourage our kids to move on once they have done all that can be done -- taken responsibility for their actions, accepted the consequences, made their amends, and learned whatever they can learn from the situation. If all those things are done with integrity, there is no point in continuing to dwell on the negative. They should be encouraged instead to put things back into perspective and create a fresh chapter.
While most parents and some educators probably already have something like this template in the back of their minds, the point here is that we need to be very intentional about making sure this very basic life lesson actually gets taught to our children. We all know adults who are unwaveringly incapable of taking responsibility for themselves, and it isn’t pretty. We owe it to our kids -- and our society as a whole -- to make sure they are not one of them.
Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he is currently writing a book on the future of grade school education.