An Honest Mistake (Dr. James Sutton; inspired by Kent Nerburn)

BTAboutThemSome kids are often in so much trouble with their parents and teachers the line separating bad behavior and an honest mistake can become a bit blurry. With that in mind, let’s consider three defining characteristics of an honest mistake. Goal: More mistakes that are honest ones.

First, let’s look at an example, a great example.

featherworkKent Nerburn, specialist and researcher into Native American cultures and customs, and author of many books on the topic, shares how one tribal group effectively managed minor wrongs committed by a young person of the tribe (from his book, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace):

I often think of the way Dakota Indians responded to a small wrong. When, for instance, a young person walked between an elder and a fire (an act of profound impoliteness in their culture), the young person said, simply, “Mistake.” It was an honest acknowledgement of an error of judgment, devoid of any self-recrimination or self-diminution. All present nodded in assent, and life went on.

How healthy such a attitude seems. We all commit mistakes in judgment, and we all need forgiveness. If we had the option of making a simple acknowledgement of our mistake and then going on with our affairs, how much clearer and gentler would life be? And how much healthier would our own hearts be if we looked upon the injuries caused us by others as simply the mistakes of human beings who, like us, are struggling to get by in a complex and mysterious world?”


As I see it, there are three important characteristics of an honest mistake, characteristics that stand in sharp contrast to deliberate or mean-spirited infractions:

  1. The person making the mistake should be the first to acknowledge it. This a huge step in solving the issue. If someone else had to recognize the infraction, is it still a mistake? Could not acknowledging it be perceived as an attempt to ignore or hide the problem, or hope others won’t notice? Could it lead to a lie about one’s responsibility for the incident?
  2. There should be a willing, self-directed effort to repair the mistake as much as possible. The youth in the story changed his movement so as to no longer offend the elders. A youngster who breaks a cup or a plate should pick up the pieces, put them in the trash, and offer to pay for the damage in some way.
  3. Because of actions #1 and #2, resulting consequences are minimal or not at all. Mistakes happen; standing responsible for them is considered commendable in our society. In fact, respect for a person can deepen when one sees how they handle an honest mistake. An honest mistake handled well can draw new respect.###
 Dr. James Sutton is a psychologist and founder/host of The Changing Behavior Network.


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