Kina learned about mistakes from Waffles and Mochi today, in the context of a felt yeti puppet accidentally dropping a satchel full of corn-based meals from a rudimentary airplane. In that episode, Michelle Obama—an unlikely but extremely charming host—gives Waffles the Yeti permission to extend herself some grace, with the understanding that mistakes are part of the process of being alive. This was a useful thing for Kina to hear, because we are not great about mistakes here at The Daily Kina HQ. We may not cry over spilled milk, but we don’t exactly let the spillage pass without comment. I’m not quite the ultra-chill dad I hoped I would be, which I think reflects a certain denial of my comfy relationship with shame and self-flagellation. I don’t extend myself a lot of grace for my mistakes, but I really try to be understanding when somebody whose body has grown two inches longer in the last four months accidentally kicks some juice off the coffee table. It happens; feet are weird.
Kina, for her part, both atones for her mistakes and holds others accountable for their own. There have been nights when Kina stomps around behind me after I’ve dropped some eggs in the kitchen or shattered a glass, barking, “You made a mistake, Daddy! Say! You’re! Sorry!” To be scolded so persistently by somebody one tenth your age is deeply humiliating, but she’s just giving voice to my internal monologue; it’s like being seen singing karaoke in your underwear through an open bedroom window—you did it, it’s normal, now everybody knows, move on. Waffles the Yeti didn’t have to tell Michelle Obama that she dropped all the corn from the airplane, but in doing so, she gives herself the kind of closure she needs to go on and make some bangin’ cornbread with Rashida Jones (as it happens).
Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about the eggs, or the glass, or misplacing Kina’s socks, or all the other things. Michelle Obama and Kina are now in firm agreement that mistakes are okay, and I probably should get on board with that. The recognition of a mistake can come from anywhere, and we beat ourselves up about them, obsess over them, when that recognition comes from within—but a mistake is just a gap between what we are taught to believe is correct and necessary and what we accomplish, despite that knowledge.
I recorded a conference talk earlier this week, about feedback. As I wrote it, I thought a lot about what it means to fall short of somebody’s expectations, and while I didn’t talk about it in the session, I really spent a lot of time wrestling with what it means to set an expectation or a cultural norm for somebody else. We all fall short of expectations at one time or another, and each of us has a different degree of fear about what will happen when we do it. We’re not born with those expectations; they’re taught to us. As children, we have to practice our way out of monstrousness, falling short of our parents’ expectations in great and minor ways each day—even as we surprise them, in equal parts, with our inherent rightness. But if you spend your whole life being aware of your own development, you eventually grow to fear it. Gaps and mistakes, upon reflection, crystallize into elements of our essential imperfection. At what cost, these standards? What does the monster know of shame?
As I delivered my talk this week, I caught myself tripping over syllables or rushing through sentences. Knowing I was being recorded, I gave myself license to acknowledge my mistakes and start over. I’ve misspoken so many times in my life, and not always with such benign outcomes. I’m tortured by some of those moments—even the minor ones—and can never quite find the path to leaving them behind. We have to own our mistakes, to atone for them, to grow through them, but our minor mistakes don’t have to own us. If I misspeak, I can start over. We can be kinder to others. We can make another cornbread.
After the show, Kina started bonking me on the head with a squishy ball, repeating over and over, “Mistakes are okay! Mistakes are okay!” I don’t know if that’s exactly the kind of license that Michelle Obama was trying to grant to Kina, but there really isn’t any harm in squishing your father. In any case, I wanted to spend some time with the monster again, to see how she was doing, and to remind her that we’re both still full of grace. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay. It’s okay.