“Well, we all make mistakes, dear, so just put it behind you. We should regret our mistakes and learn from them, but never carry them forward into the future with us.”
My mother is 91 now, but I will never forget a story she shared with me when we were both much younger. She was relating her experience with a friend who had the habit of hovering around her toddler to prevent him from getting hurt.
Mama said that this little boy was fascinated by a little wooden step stool and was always trying to climb on it. Her friend didn’t discourage him from climbing on the stool, but she would surreptitiously plant her foot on a rung to keep the stool from tipping over. Doing so made her feel happy and let her child believe that stools are untippable.
Mama’s point was that if we don’t let our children tip over sometimes, they won’t learn how to balance their bodies, how to move in ways that minimize spills and falls.
Children that are not allowed to make mistakes, who have an adult hovering closely to prevent any consequences from arising might be preventing a few disappointments, scrapes, or bruises, but they are at the same time not allowing the child to learn much about how to make good choices.
The unfortunate fact (or fortunate, depending on your viewpoint) is that consequences, bumps, disappointments, and other annoying events have a far greater impact on most of us than not. It is in the smoothest of smooth times that we coast along and run the risk of thinking it won’t matter what I choose to do. Everything is coming up roses! There are no warning bells tinkling anywhere.
The parents who firmly step on the rung of their child’s stepstool will still be doing that when the stepstool has turned into a car driven by their now-teenager. They will still be trying to step on that rung when their child is a young adult in their first job, floundering because they are not used to making decisions for themselves. How awkward to have Daddy come to intervene with the boss!
The need for first-hand experience
There are all types of people with varying needs for first-hand experience. I have two children – one has always been one who could learn from the mistakes of others and the other one wanted to experience life first hand. Neither one was better than the other nor more “right.” It is a personality thing. One child will observe a friend doing something tres stupid and mutter, “I’m never doing that!” The other will say, “I am going to try it myself. It might have turned out that way for you, but if I try it will work out just fine for me!”
Some children are more abstract. And some children are more tactile and concrete. Some children need to work out meaning for themselves rather than just listening to what someone tells them.
How to let children make mistakes safely
- Let them be in charge of getting their own things gathered up and home from school each day. If they forget, let the consequence happen.
- Help your child identify a good place to do homework. The child is capable of knowing how much distraction they can handle, how much noise, etc., so if you give them the responsibility of choosing a spot that allows them to focus best, they will take ownership of their own work.
- When it comes to doing the homework itself, just let the child do it. The goal is to support the child. That means answering questions, and so forth. The goal is not a perfect composition with no errors in it. It is not going to permanently hurt if a third grader gets a C on a project.
- Let the child choose his or her clothing for school (within reason). I remember my third grade daughter choosing the most brilliant combinations of clothing to wear. It made me secretly cringe. The stuff didn’t even match. That phase didn’t last that long, thankfully. But does mismatched clothing really matter in the long run?
- Let your child make his or her own lunch. Your part in this is to teach nutrition. You might provide a chart of foods to choose from. Or make them clean their own room. Make up a checklist, ways to be organized, but then let them do it! My policy with this was to make the child’s room their area. They couldn’t leave their things sloppily all over the house, and if their own room was a disaster on wheels, well then, the door had to remain closed. If they DID leave things strewn around the house, I collected them and each item had to be redeemed for a quarter each.
- Every person in the house should be contributing to the upkeep of the house. I remember letting my semi-grown up child know that I expected help. I heard, “But my friends don’t have to do this!” My reply was, “Let’s pretend we are sharing an apartment. Half of it is mine and half is yours. Half the food and half the chores.” That really worked well. I was only sad when it came to the point she wanted us to clear out all the weeds behind the garage. Where no one could see them but us. Oh, and when she decided our kitchen needed to be painted. No really. It was all good!
- Fill in the blank based on your own situation! Children love taking ownership of their lives! They feel so powerful, competent, worthwhile, able, and smart, and then they grow up along that same path! Competent, able, smart, and possessing the ability to make good choices.
The bottom line is that when we helicopter, we really are showing our children how little we trust them to learn, to choose, to make good choices, or to be able to do anything at all well! WE learned somehow, but they most certainly are not capable. And we don’t want to send this message at all! So let’s touch down, kiss their heads, and go do something productive.