Should You Let Your Child Make Her Own Mistakes?

October 16, 2017

You've probably seen her.

She's on the playground, carefully wiping off her eleven-year-old's hands and squatting beside the sandbox to sweetly tell a toddler that actually, it IS her son's turn with the shovel.

She's at the store, squirting hand sanitizer like it's going out of style and pulling her daughter closer at the sound of a sniffle from three aisles over.

She's at the soccer game screaming her daughter's name like it's 1985 and she's at a heavy metal concert.

She's the helicopter mom. And maybe, sometimes she's you. Actually, sometimes, she's pretty much all of us.

In an era of stranger danger, Amber alerts (we're not knocking those by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, we're incredibly grateful they exist) and good v. bad bacteria, how do you know when to draw the line at "helping" your child? Today we discuss when to step in - and when to step back.

A 180 From 1980

In days gone by, the general parenting consensus was, "Children need to make their own mistakes. Otherwise, they'll never learn."

As a consequence, children even 20 years ago - and certainly farther back than that - were still riding their bikes to friends' homes a mile or two away, failing classes rather than receiving RSP and tutoring and were even (gasp!) drinking from the garden hose.

Today, parenting has experienced nearly a total 180. Children are not only able but are expected to "alert" another adult of the slightest, well, slight. Kids don't go hungry for even an hour or so if they've forgotten to pack a snack; instead, teachers calmly call the parents. They can't serve something out of the school cupboard for fear of allergies, intolerances or even parental preference that could, in the school's eyes, result in a tongue-lashing or for a more panicked parent, a lawsuit.

In some circumstances, if a child willfully commits a transgression at school or otherwise in public, the parent can be held legally liable.

Good Intentions...Yet, More Fear Than Ever

Sure, today's comparative oldsters (quietly raising hand) may take note of these changes. But we realize each new law or regulation did have, and continues to have, a firm reason behind it - and always good intentions.

I can't snark too badly at ANY of this. The one lasting (it never really goes away) story for me is this one: When I was seven years old, a girl one grade up from me in our quiet Northern New Jersey bedroom community was taken inside the home of a well-known, respected adult to deliver Girl Scout cookies. She was raped and when she sobbed that she was going to tell her mother, the rapist murdered her. Our town was struck dumb from shock and grief.

I also know a woman, now in her middle years, who has operated life cheerfully but from a wheelchair since she was 11 years old and was struck down by a car as she tried to cross the street on her bicycle in order to get to school on time.

In the "old days," children made ALL their own mistakes. With good reason, and on the heels of many similar, senseless crimes and horrific accidents to the ones above, both laws and parenting styles began to change...yet we seem more, not less, afraid than ever before. Indeed, in our quest to keep our children very innocent and very, very young, we may in extreme circumstances even be fined or do jail time for our children's decisions.

This begs the question: are we doing ourselves and our children more harm than good? In our quest to protect the ones we love best, have we gone too far?

The Consequences of Not Having Consequences

Unfortunately, well-intended or not, no consequences means just that: NO consequences, except perhaps a sad shake of a parental head and an "I feel so sad."

But the no-consequences thing doesn't last forever. Before the parents know it, the child has turned 18 and is no longer a child at all...especially in the eyes of the law.

Of course, to be less dramatic about it, there are simple, practical capabilities the child will be missing that could impact her job (or her ability to find one in the first place), her relationships, and how responsible she is with, for example, alcohol or driving.

A young adult who was raised not to understand how to care for herself, prevent danger via common sense or to experience what real responsibility is will be ill prepared for the real world, which, sadly, is not as accepting, loving and caretaking as Mom and Dad. We all wish it were (I know I do). But it isn't. And no matter what anti-bullying, job equality and legal efforts we make, there will always be situations where our grown children will need to figure things out for themselves.

That's the $10,000 question: what happens when our very, very protected children become adults, and then screw up? Can they continue to blame us? Will they ever learn?

1. Sure they can. Why not? 2. Sure they can. But it will be a WHOLE lot harder than if they'd been raised a different way.

Finding a Happy (and Healthy) Medium

So what's the answer?

Obviously, children differ. For example, my 14-year-old is intellectually delayed. On the other hand, his self-care skills are so amazing that we call him Dad Deux. He "parents" his younger, non-special needs brother, telling our youngest to brush his teeth and get ready for bed and asking him if he's done his homework.

We feel lucky in that regard, because frankly, with parenting truisms constantly changing, we're every bit as confused as you are. Is there any "right" way to do this?

Actually, three children and 18 years later, we think there is. Which brings us to...

Reasonable Expectations

Perhaps the smartest thing to do is, taking the child's individuality in consideration - children do, after all, mature at different rates - start setting reasonable expectations, to allow our children to experience consequences on the smaller things (increasing as they become older and more responsible), but keep the larger ones still the ultimate realm of the parent.

As an example, we would not have forced our youngest child to ride his bike the three miles to school if he'd missed his bus (we know a parent who did do this with her daughter); we are, I feel, reasonably afraid of what might happen to a panicked, humiliated child already late for school, pedaling like mad across two major thru-ways. 

On the other hand, our son started forgetting his snack as a routine thing. We told him in advance that if he forgot his snack next time, Mom would pack it. He did forget - and Mom packed something he didn't love (but which was healthy). He didn't go hungry, but he wasn't exactly doing cartwheels over no-responsibility becoming, as a consequence, no choice. The next time, he remembered to pack his own snack. We haven't had a problem since.

We give a helping hand with homework, but don't do it for our children, no matter how exquisite the temptation may be - especially in the face of knowing other parents are, rather professionally, creating their own children's shadow boxes and book reports.

And if our child is having an issue with another child, barring bullying, we ask him to talk it out first before we ourselves jump in with a polite phone call to the parent to openly discuss things.

By the way: nope, I still can't bear to watch my son, after touching every available germy surface in the supermarket, open his treat and shove it into his mouth without a squirt of hand sanitizer first. Sue me. Say it loud: I'm a squirter and I'm proud (even with the teenager).

Use Your Best Judgment...and Have a Little Optimisim

Obviously, your own rules will change over time as your child becomes older and more mature. And my own family's way is not the only way.

If there's one thing I've learned as a parent, it's that the only people who know it all regarding children don't have any yet. You have a kid or two and you learn you're far from the expert.

That means you should use your best judgment on what your child is ready for, but perhaps you should take a closer look at how you're viewing that readiness.

You may think there's no way your daughter is ready to brush her own teeth; she'll be riddled with cavities in no time. But you may be surprised.

Or perhaps your little girl reaches for the swing at the playground, but a quicker child has gotten there first, and jumps on. Wait. Just wait. Sit on your hands if you have to (I do). See whether they're going to discuss this. See if your daughter starts to cry, or whether perhaps she actually doesn't care at all and wanders off to swing on the monkey bars instead. Maybe she outright tells the other girl, "I got here first...can I swing for a while?" and maybe that actually works out just fine (again - you might be surprised).

Give your child that benefit of a doubt: she may be far more mature and ready for various issues and confrontations than you think she is.

If you see that she's not, THEN intervene, patiently and calmly.

We parents do the best we can do. Sometimes it nearly kills us to watch our children make mistakes. But if we allow those mistakes to happen, in the context of learning and maturity rather than literal life or death/danger situations, we may be giving our children the biggest gift we ever can: love-backed future independence.

From Guest Blogger Melanie Henson