I’d love to shelter my children from heartache, struggle and pain. Having been down the road they are now traveling, surely I can steer them around many of the potholes and roadblocks, making their journey much easier. After all, I can see the big picture much better so I’d make an ideal navigator, right?
The problem is, I can’t be there every moment and eventually they’ll be far away from my safe shelter. What happens when life comes at them without my buffer? As the pediatrician often reminds me, “You’re not raising a child here, you’re creating an adult.” If I send my child into the real world after I’ve protected him from making mistakes and feeling the pain that goes along with poor choices, he is in for a disastrous transition to reality.
Jim and Charles Fay of the Love and Logic Institute are big fans of letting children make mistakes so they can learn first hand about consequences. The cost of a child’s mistake is far less than the cost of an adult’s. For your teen to blow his whole allowance is a bummer; for your 21-year-old to blow their entire paycheck could be devastating. If your teen forgoes studying he could flunk a test that could hurt his grade; if he forgoes studying in a college course it could result in falling impossibly behind and flunking the course. Our teens need to feel the pain and regret of their mistakes while the stakes are still small. This prepares them to make educated choices when the stakes are high.
“But how can I be a good parent and yet knowingly let my child do dumb things?” That’s a tough one. A good rule of thumb is to intervene in cases where your child could get physically injured (jumping off the roof, driving drunk) or have consequences far beyond their age or ability level (legal trouble, pregnancy, irreversible damage like transcripts or online data that could damage their future). But otherwise, do your best to let your teen figure out who they are and what they want with their life – even when it means making mistakes along the way. This creates an adult with internal limits and values that stick around even after you, their shelter and buffer, are gone. Your young adult will get up and go to work every day because she remembers the shock and embarrassment of losing that summer ice cream shop job for sleeping in too many times. Your young man will study because he wants to feel confident in his performance, not because someone is nagging him about homework. Your child will be friendly toward others because he knows the pain of losing friendships because of rude behavior.
If this sounds like throwing your child to the reality wolves, it shouldn’t. As your child is making mistakes, you’ll be right there to empathize, support and process these life lessons with them. The surprising thing is that your child is more likely to let you in and discuss their mistakes when they’re not dreading a giant “I told you so.” Creating the family dynamic that “We learn from our mistakes” instead of “We don’t make mistakes” takes away much of the power struggle, improves your relationship with your teen and builds a much more thoughtful and capable young adult who is better prepared for the reality ahead.