Guest Column

It Was Just an ‘Accident’

by David Sherman

“Oops. My bad.” Even the first time I heard that oft-repeated phrase, I was annoyed.

What do you mean, your “bad”? What happened to proper English and the rules of etiquette? When someone makes a mistake, shouldn’t the person say, “I am sorry, I made a mistake”? Or at least, shouldn’t he or she make some type of apology?

“My bad” seems so flippant, as if saying, “Yeah, so I messed up … what’s the big deal?” I hear it all the time. It’s become cliché.

I’ve had a change of heart recently. This stems from a long-running argument in my family over a certain other phrase that people often use (or overuse): “It was an accident.”

I have been quibbling with my family about this line for years, and I am not sure I have made any headway in changing their minds about its use. Here is my side of the argument.

Common Refrain
My annoyance goes back to when I was in high school taking driver’s education. I was merging onto the expressway for the first time. I was pretty scared, white knuckles and all. The unlucky teacher sitting next to me started talking about accidents. He made a simple statement, saying, “When driving, there are no accidents. Someone is always at fault.” Of course, he stated this in the context of driving a car, and he was referring to automobile accidents. The phrase has always stuck with me.

Fast forward about 25 years. I was completing my third or fourth year as an elementary school principal. I had come to expect that nine times out of 10 when a student was sent to me for some disciplinary reason, the immediate first line of defense was “It was an accident.”

No, Billy, hitting Tommy in the mouth was not an accident. You were angry because he took your ball so you slugged him.

No, Billy, Sheila did not accidentally trip over your leg. Your teacher saw you stick it out on purpose.

These are not accidents. Someone is at fault. When a person states, “It was an accident,” it sends the message that the individual does not want to take personal responsibility for an action. Somehow, that little fellow sitting in my office wants me to believe that hitting Tommy in the mouth was an accident, even though it was an act of violence perpetrated as a result of getting angry at Tommy. I just don’t buy it.

I hear this from my own two kids as well. One of them will say, “I did not mean for the lamp to break. It was an accident.” No, you were throwing a pillow at your sister, and the pillow knocked over the lamp. That was not an accident. That was a careless act that happened because you were not thinking of the consequences of throwing a pillow at someone in the living room.

A New Light
So how do we help children understand that they must take responsibility for their actions and not allow them to pass off their misbehavior as a mistake caused by some random force completely out of their control? How do we teach children to think before they act? How do we impress upon them that there are both negative and positive consequences to the choices they make?

First, I no longer allow a child to use the “A” word in my office. If a student starts to explain away his or her behavior owing to an accident, I immediately require the youngster to explain to me exactly what he or she did wrong. Then we trace the steps back to the point where the student made a bad choice, and we replay the situation, this time making the right choice. Of course, in life there are no “do-overs.” We can’t hit the rewind button and try again.

At the elementary school level, my job is to teach children to recognize when they reach the fork in the road and then choose the right path or make the correct choice. If Billy recognizes, in the heat of the moment, that Tommy grabbed his ball just to antagonize him, Billy may make a better choice and not smash Tommy in the mouth. This better choice will keep Tommy from getting hurt, and it will keep Billy out of trouble and out of my office.

Back to “My bad.” I now see that silly little phrase in a whole new light. This is not a copout after all. A person who utters that statement is admitting he made a mistake. He is taking some responsibility for his actions — much more so than someone claiming his behavior was due to an accident.

Admitting you did something wrong is the first step toward fixing the problem. Helping children understand they must consider the consequences of their actions and take responsibility for their behavior is our job as educators and parents. It is a lesson that will serve them well in life.

David Sherman is principal of South Park Elementary School in Deerfield, Ill. E-mail: dsherman@dps109.org. He blogs at “The Principal and Interest.”