Over Halloween, some 6th grade drama occurred among my daughter’s friends. Typical stuff really: some girls in group costumes, other girls feeling left out, lots of chatter about who would be trick-or-treating with whom—and then throw a boy-girl party into the mix. Nothing catastrophic happened, but it’s junior high now and social situations can evoke uncomfortable and even unfamiliar emotions.
But then the mama drama began—the whispers, the looks, even snippy words exchanged. Emotions were at a peak. After all, no one wants to see her child upset.
While I understood this in theory, in practice, I broke two golden rules I give other parents as part of my career as a parent coach: to stay out of it, and to wait 24 hours before sending an angry text or email.
Again, nothing major happened, but in this case, I couldn’t let my behavior go: The fact that I didn’t practice what I preached bothered me more than the conduct itself. And I dwelled on it. While the other parents and kids moved on, I was still kicking myself long after Halloween.
Maybe this sounds all too familiar. But I feel I should know better. I have a background in social work, I’m a life coach and parent coach. I attend Torah classes and other courses to help me be the best person I can be. I really work on myself. I practice this stuff! That said, at times, I slip up. And then the negative inner voice starts yammering.
But recently, something clicked. It happened when I heard a Jewish educator whom I admire reveal that her 14-year-old son ran away from home—ran away, in fact, on the night she was teaching a parenting class.
As I listened to her story, I wiped back tears, partly in relief to hear that her son returned that evening. But the tears were also personal: I felt a sense of release. For me, this was a lightbulb moment; I no longer felt pressure to be the perfect parent.
I realized that although I practice and preach this stuff, practice does not make perfect.
From there, I recalled what I have learned in my adult Jewish studies and began to formulate a plan for future mess-ups.
Five (Particularly Jewish) Tips to Follow When You Mess Up:
1. Give Yourself A Break
One of the Hebrew words for “sin” is cheta, which means to “miss the mark.” Judaism does not believe that people sin so much as make mistakes. So let’s not be so hard on ourselves. Give yourself permission to mess up. Mussar, a Jewish spiritual practice, teaches that it’s not just OK to make mistakes, it’s actually necessary. Through them, we learn and grow.
Our imperfections are there for a reason: They represent what we’re meant to work on. They form our personal (or spiritual) curriculum—another Jewish concept emphasized in Mussar.
2. What’s The Message Behind The Mistake?
You know that one mistake that you continue to make, again and again? The behavior that keeps popping up? That thing? That might very well be what you’re meant to work on. In fact, sometimes the negative habit or trait represents the opposite positive trait that needs attention. Take the email or text message sent hastily, without waiting 24 hours to think it over (Yup, that’s me). That suggests the positive traits I need to develop are patience and self-control.
3. Clean It Up!
The Hebrew word teshuvah, typically associated with repentance during the High Holidays, actually means “return.” This suggests returning to our pure selves. The stages of teshuvah for minor, daily mistakes include feeling and verbalizing sincere regret, asking for forgiveness of anyone who has been harmed, repairing or undoing any damage done, and making a plan to stop the behavior from recurring. It’s important to take ownership of our mistakes without making excuses or blaming others. That means the words “I’m sorry” cannot be followed with the word “but.”
4. Move On
Yes, examining what happened yesterday is important to understanding where we’d like to be tomorrow. But don’t get stuck in the past. It’s not helpful to repeatedly mull over what we should have, could have, would have done differently. Identify the lesson in the mistake from which you are meant to learn (#2), let go of any guilt and negativity, practice teshuva (#3), and move on!
5. Focus On Your Good Deeds, Not Your Misdeeds
It’s important to recognize that our mistakes do not represent our whole and complete selves, nor do they define us. And remember: what we focus on expands. So focus on the positives, your strengths and how you shine in this world. For example, when I feel I’ve made a mistake in how I handled a parenting issue, I focus on the fact that my children are polite, kind, and compassionate.
With these lessons in mind, let’s ring in the New Year with a new awareness of the meaning behind our mistakes. Let’s give ourselves permission to mess up. Because I can assure you, even practice does not make perfect—and that’s how it is meant to be, which is, in fact, perfect.