Human nature on defense

Adults don’t like it much when a younger person, particularly someone in their charge, points out that they have made a mistake.

When I was in early elementary school — I don’t remember exactly which grade — I noticed a sign hung on a teacher’s classroom wall included a misspelled word. Have you ever read the Harry Potter books, or seen the movies? I was Hermione, minus the magic.

So before I’d had a chance to think about the repercussions (because this was a grown up I was dealing with, right? Surely they would want to change the mistake so it was not seen — and maybe absorbed — by all the other students), I shot my little hand high up into the air … and when called upon, pointed out the mistake for all the classroom to hear.

I was rewarded with a reaction stunning enough that I recall the feeling of confused disappointment to this day. I remember going home and telling my parents what had happened, thinking surely this was not the norm. They gently explained to me that, in fact, most people do not want to be told they have made a mistake, certainly not publicly, and definitely not by someone they consider not to have reached their level — a young student calling out a teacher, for example. The reaction of the person who has made the mistake is very often going to be one of pure defense, or even attacking the messenger, they explained to me.

But wouldn’t they want to know? To make it right? Some people, sure, my parents told me. But most, no. Human nature makes it very difficult to own up to one’s mistakes.

Sometimes what we see happen in these cases is that friends or even simply others of the same demographic as the person who has made the mistake circle the wagons, declaring the mistake no big deal, attempting to shame the person who pointed out the mistake for making such a scene of it, etc. It’s easier when the person they go after is much younger. It’s easier to dismiss just a teenager they say is looking for attention than to focus on correcting the mistake.

It’s easier to double down on setting the bad example — and maybe create enough of a chilling effect to keep the troublesome young person from making any more waves — than to seize an opportunity to admit shortcomings and teach a lesson while setting a better example.

But human nature is a nasty thing. Our better selves get lost a lot. Sadly, generation after generation learns that “do as I say, not as I do” is a load of hooey, and that if they are going to survive in the grown-up world, they might have to stoop to the level of the previous generation, or prepare for their fight to be much harder than anything they were taught they might face.

***

On the other hand, one bunch of adults who has no trouble admitting when they are beaten are the officials behind the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In an extraordinary competition last week, eight kids battled it out for hours, nearly exhausting the dictionary, when pronouncer Jacques Bailly told the participants in the final round:

“We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super spellers in the history of this competition.”

So for the first time, the National Spelling Bee ended in an eight-way tie. There will be eight $50,000 prizes and eight trophies given.

That is incredible. Congratulations to ALL the winners.

They are more proof that our young people are not to be underestimated; and are headed for bigger and better things than we have dreamed.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

COMMENTS