Did You Have an Accident or Make a Mistake?

The first time I ever argued semantics was with my mother when I was about five. I’d done something I wasn’t supposed to do — like any other five-year-old in the history of everything ever — and when things had gone sideways (surprise, surprise) I got in trouble. The argument was whether I had made a mistake or had an accident.

My mother said I had made a mistake because it was something I had chosen to do and shouldn’t have done and that — being at fault — I would have to be punished. I was under the impression I’d had an accident because I didn’t feel I’d had a choice as to whether I was going to do it regardless of whether I knew beforehand that I shouldn’t do it and that meant I wasn’t at fault (and shouldn’t be punished). I was five, so those weren’t the words we used, but those were the major points of our respective arguments.

Every story we tell ourselves or others is in some way an act of self-preservation. When we’re small, everything we do is a kind of accident for which we can’t be blamed because we just haven’t yet learned a particular rule or set of rules. Then, we reach the so-called Age of Reason where we start hearing phrases like “you should know better” and “go sit in time out and think about what you’ve done.”

Knowing Better

A child who wets the bed knows they shouldn’t wet the bed. A parent who punishes their child for wetting the bed is typically judged harshly. A child can’t help what their body is doing when they’re sleeping, they’re still learning to listen to their body when they’re awake!

A child who’s been told not to climb on the back of the couch should know not to climb on the bookshelf, but — when an insatiable curiosity hits to know what’s inside the covers of the books out of reach — an as-yet-unspoken rule getting broken is not wholly the fault of the child. The mistake was thinking that because you told the kid one thing, they would naturally know the other.

Yet a parent punishing their child for climbing a bookshelf when the child was never told not to climb the bookshelf, but were told not to climb on the wrong part of the couch, is seen as either clarifying a rule or having a particularly precocious child. The child says “It was an accident” because they did not wholly realize what they were doing. The parent says “Think about what you’ve done.”

Thinking About What You’ve Done

A while back my sister (who has never put her daughter in time out) posted a video of her kids at the park wherein my niece said “I’m having a time out.” She just sat down in the play area and held still and took a time out for herself. I’ve never before wished for the ability to read minds so hard in my life.

I remember being sent to time out to think about things I’d done. Do you? Chances are, being that we were kids and knew nothing about mindfulness or self-awareness, you — like me — sat there still convinced that your parents were wrong for punishing you because “it was an accident” and maybe thought about how the “broken” rule in question had now been expanded to include your most recent offense.

Now, think about all those times in your day-to-day where your life by some unforeseeable accident got crazy out of hand and suddenly you were scrounging to recover from what feels like everybody else’s mistakes. If we take a time out for ourselves plus practice a little mindfulness, can we follow the chain of events back to our own mistakes? Did we make the mistake of assuming we were perfectly clear in our message or take for granted that a certain someone was going to do what they always do without checking in with them?

Accidents Happen, Mistakes Repeat

Every mistake, from honest to tragic, is a moment of not giving our full attention to the situation at hand. Every accident, from innocent to tragic, is an outcome unforeseen because we weren’t giving our full attention to the situation at hand. We use the word mistake when we know what we did wrong, and accident when we still can’t see the connection between our actions and the outcome.

Confusion comes when the words are used interchangeably, particularly “honest mistake” and “innocent mistake” in place of accident when all we want is not to be blamed, not to be the villain of a particular situation. A child falling asleep and wetting the bed has an accident. A kid at a sleepover putting the sleeping child’s hand in a bowl of warm water to make them wet the bed is making a mistake.

When we stop to think about what we or others have done, how far back are we willing to go to find the root mistake, the moment of inattention that lead to trouble or even tragedy? When looking back, do we stop at the first clear mistake we find, or dig deeper to prevent its happening again?