One recurring theme that emerged in several Forum sessions this year was the concept of forgiveness and the value of failure in leading to success. Thankfully, the tough-guy, muscular notion that first-time or one-time lapses in character warrant permanent disciplinary consequences now seems passé.
“Zero tolerance policies never work,” said Michele Borba, the renowned childhood behavior expert at one of the Forum’s first breakout sessions on Friday morning. She explained that inflexible punishments invariably just push practices like bullying out the schoolhouse doors and off the grounds. It does nothing to address the root cause of the problem and to help turn the child around.
Added one veteran teacher, “That is so true. What do children learn from that? If we don’t allow them to experience growth, what’s the point of all this?”
Second chances have even managed to work their way into some of the strictest academic environments in the U.S., the military academies. Dr. Mike Rosebush, chief of character & leadership coaching at the U.S. Air Force Academy noted in his breakout session that 88 freshman cadets last year had been caught cheating electronically on an online math test. To his relief–but not his surprise–none had already gone through his character coaching program. Those who had did not cheat.
“In the past, that would have been it for them — one honor violation and you were gone,” recalled Rosebush, himself a USAFA alum. “But now, they go through a six-month rehabilitation program that reinforces the right values — so that they don’t do it again.”
To the surprise of more than a few, the new flexibility has not destroyed the Academy. Of course, honor and tradition still reign supreme in Colorado Springs, but those cadets who stumble –each already in possession of attributes that warranted their Congressional appointment in the first place– today are no longer automatically discarded. Instead, they are given another chance to fulfill the enormous promise with which they were all blessed.
Beyond academia, the principle has equal applications in the working world. In his keynote speech at Saturday’s luncheon, legendary aerospace titan Norman Augustine, winner of CEP’s 2012 American Patriot of Character Award recalled an incident from much earlier in his career. While managing a dedicated team at a contractor working for NASA, Augustine said his engineers were all required to follow exacting protocols in the lab that demanded constant precision. After all, lives ultimately were at stake, he explained.
Augustine: “There was a strict rule that whenever any of us moved a highly sensitive box of equipment, we had to put it on a specially designed instrumentation cart that would monitor and measure every movement. Everyone was required to use the cart no matter how short the distance was that the box had to travel.”
As luck would have it, the time came when a particularly dedicated employee was working late one Saturday night and only had to move the box a very short distance across a room. So he took a short cut and decided he could do it manually without the cart. Sure enough, he dropped the box. Alarmed, the diligent engineer then inventoried everything in the box, put it back on the cart to measure its instrumentation and then checked all its measurements. To his relief, everything seemed fine. But that was not all.
On Monday morning, at the team’s weekly meeting, the engineer told Augustine and everyone else what had happened. All present knew that this was a firing offense, and Augustine could feel everyone there holding their breath and looking at him. Dismayed but conscious of responsibility as team leader, he thanked the engineer for his honesty and said that he would have a decision at the next week’s meeting. “Everyone wondered what I would do, and so did I,” recalled Augustine.
At the following weekly meeting, Augustine first recounted all the safety rules andreiterated why they were so important. Then he announced his decision: the engineer in violation would be reprimanded and a letter would be put in his employee file. He would also be rewarded with a spot bonus of $500 for his honesty. “I also stressed that this was a one-time only occurrence and that others shouldn’t go out and break rules in hopes of winning $500,” explains Augustine. “But I also know that if I had fired the man, no one would ever come forward again to tell me when they had done something wrong.”
Was this compassion? Forgiveness? How would he describe his decision? Said Augustine: “It was really just common sense.”
Redemptive remedies also are key to the research findings that form the basis of Paul Tough’s new book,How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. In his Friday keynote speech, Tough talked about how children of wealth and privilege often are unprepared for real life because even their highly competitive academic life has been shielded from adversity. In part, because parents refuse to see failure as an option — ever.
Tough recalled one of the subjects of his book, Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, NY. “For children to succeed, we have to let them fail,” said Tough, describing Randolph’s view. In the book, Randolph goes on to say, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure… and in most highly academic environments in the United States (today), no one fails anything.”
Experiencing setbacks, picking oneself up after a fall, swinging and missing at times — these are all essential stepping stones toward developing the grit and character that we all need to succeed in the long term.
And fortunately, the notion in non-nurturing circles that some students may be called ‘out’ after just one strike is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. As the saying goes, “To err truly is human; to forgive, divine.”