“Oops. My bad.” When I first heard that popular and often-used phrase, I was annoyed by it. What do you mean “your bad?” What happened to proper English and the rules of etiquette? When a person makes a mistake, shouldn’t he say “I am sorry, I made a mistake.”? Or, in the least, shouldn’t he make some type of apology. “My bad” seemed so flippant, like saying “yeah, so I messed up …what’s the big deal?” Yet I hear it all the time. My own kids use it constantly whenever they do something carelessly or without thinking, For a long time that silly phrase just bugged me.
I have had a change of heart recently however, regarding the “my bad” comment. This change in my attitude stems from a long-running argument in my family regarding a certain other phrase that people often use (Actually, I would argue that they overuse it). That phrase is “It was an accident.”
I have been arguing with my wife and daughters about this other phrase for at least five years, and I am not sure I have made any headway in changing their minds (even though they are so obviously wrong!). Here is my side of the argument. I promise I will connect this to the “my bad” comment in a moment.
My argument goes like this: It started back when I was in high school while I was taking driver’s education. I remember merging on to the expressway for the very first time. I was pretty scared, white knuckles and all. Anyway, the unlucky teacher sitting next to me started talking about accidents. He made a very simple statement. He said, “When driving, there are no accidents. Someone is always at fault.” Of course, this statement was made in the context of driving a car, and he was referring to automobile accidents. Regardless of the context, 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 the realization that 9 out of 10 times when a student was sent to me for some disciplinary reason, his or her 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. Or, Sheila did not accidentally trip over your leg, your teacher saw you stick it out on purpose to see what would happen.
These incidents are not accidents. Someone is at fault. When a person states, “It was an accident” it sends the message that they do not want to take responsibility for their actions. 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.
So, how do we help children understand that they must take responsibility for their actions and not say that their mistake was due to some random act that was completely out of their control (e.g. an “accident”)? 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 that her behavior was due to an accident, I immediately stop her and tell her to explain to me exactly what she did wrong. Then we trace her steps back to the point where she 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 cop out after all. A person who uses that statement is admitting that he made a mistake. He is taking some responsibility for his actions - much more so than someone claiming that his behavior was due to an accident. Admitting you did something wrong is the first step toward fixing the problem. Helping children understand that 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.