The pilot story (or why not to punish children's mistakes)

A very powerful story that Alex often tells the kids when they make a mistake.

Carlotta Cerri

Some while ago, Emily wrote on Alex's tablet with the sharpie: she was sitting on the floor and writing on paper, the tablet was near the paper… and she made a mistake.

It’s an expensive tablet, not a toy, and it’s Alex’s work tool: luckily we managed to get it off using a rubber, but when it happened I instinctively told Alex that maybe it’s too early for her to use it by herself.

Emily burst into tears.

I hugged her and said, “Emily, I think it might be too big of a responsibility for you. You can use it by yourself when you know how to take care of it”.

She hugged me tight, and cried even harder. She was desperate.

I said, “I know you’re feeling bad, I understand. I’m here for you”.

Alex came to her and asked her if she could tell her a story:

«I want to tell you a story I once read somewhere. There was a man who had a few planes. One day the man needed to go somewhere, and he told a pilot to prepare the plane. The plane took off but shortly after, it started losing power and went down. The pilot managed to land and both the plane’s owner and the pilot survived, but the plane was destroyed. You know what had happened? The pilot had made a mistake: he had put the wrong fuel in the plane.

After a few days the owner of the plane called the pilot again, and asked him to prepare his plane. The pilot was confused and asked, “Why me? I destroyed your plane!”. And the man said, “Nobody has never made a mistake. But I’m sure you’ll never make this mistake again. That’s why I want you to be the only one to refuel my plane from now on”.

Emily, you made a mistake today. But I’m sure you’ll never make that mistake again! So I still trust you with the tablet. Let’s just decide a rule: you never use the tablet on the floor, so there’s less chances of it mixing with your toys. What do you think about this?».

They shook hands and she hugged him for half an hour.

I was good, I controlled my emotions quite well (I didn't get upset, because I know it's useless), I welcomed her mistake, but I would have fallen back on the methods of traditional education: I would have removed the tablet — which is a punishment, no matter how I phrase it.

Alex took a step further, he treated the mistake for what it is: a friend, and one of the best teachers in life.

Mistakes are friends. It's how we learn. It's not the punishments that teach, it's the mistakes: we think it's the punishments only because every time our children make mistakes, we punish them, we don't give them the benefit of the doubt. But if we didn't, if we simply talked to them about their mistake, they'd learn anyway, probably even better. And next time they might not make the mistake not out of fear of being punished, but because they want to do the right thing.

That's the kind of generation we desperately need in the world.

Let's stop punishing children when they make mistakes. Let's start treating mistake as friends. Children will honor our trust when we give it to them.

And we are sure that Emily will never make that mistake again.

Ps. The sentence I said to Emily, "You can use it when you can take care of it" is a complete contradiction, and the wrong mentality: how can she learn to take care of it if she can't use it?

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