As parents, we often forget that to err is human. (I know I’m guilty of forgetting that at times.) In our well-intentioned pursuit of raising perfectly happy, successful kids, we all too often equate them making a mistake with FAILURE … when, in fact, research tells us —making mistakes is essential to future SUCCESS.
Our all-or-nothing failure perspective isn’t just accurate; it actually harms our children’s self-esteem and our relationship with them.
Yes, missteps are sometimes messy, embarrassing, and inconvenient. But, more so, making mistakes encourages creativity and curiosity. A fumble or off decision can help our children learn (sometimes the hard way) a better approach for doing things. And lessons they learn from experience are ones they tend to remember better for the long term. Also, mistakes give our kids space to practice using their courage and setting (and honoring) healthy boundaries.
So, while I know your kids making mistakes can feel frustrating in the moment, I’m here to say — calm down a bit, Mom and Dad. Here are a few blunders that can actually HELP your child live a more happy, mindful, and successful life:
1. They make HUGE messes.
Whether they’re splashing in puddles or (oops!) drawing on the walls, we’ve got to let our kids create, experiment, and have fun.
We bundle our kids up against the cold weather, ask them to use hand sanitizer between every class, and pack a change of clothes for their school cubbies just in case they step in a little mud.
But, have you ever watched your child’s face the first time he or she steps barefoot into that puddle of water? Pure happiness. And did you know: A little splash in a mud hole filled with rain water can actually increase serotonin, lower stress levels, and enhance immune function and sleep? And, time spent rolling in the grass can help decrease rates of ADHD, obesity, and depression? Well, it’s true. Messy time in nature equals health and happiness for your child. But, they can’t truly explore without getting a little dirty.
Oh, and that giant, clean wall of yours? Well, it looks like a grand and wonderful canvas to your pre-schooler. In her mind: You painted on it, why can’t she? Besides, your painting looks so — well— monochromatic! Hers has more … panache! Even teens like to line those boring walls with friend photos and boy band posters. And so, your child often misinterprets your asking for a clean wall as rejection of her creativity.
The solution? Paint the walls with with water-resistant colors and buy some soap! Better yet, devote an entire wall in your house to your young one’s divine inspiration! Take a picture before you wash it off together; you’ll treasure these memories someday! (Just make sure your pens aren’t full of permanent ink.)
2. They sometimes get “bad” grades.
We’ve all heard about it (or, perhaps are even guilty of it?): Parents who write their kids’ essays and build their kids’ science fair projects for them. Then we sometimes find ourselves stepping in because our 6th grader is now struggling to write a paper that must compete against his classmate’s paper, that an adult wrote.
Or, our 8th grader gets a D on a project that’s compared to these “elite” students’ “efforts,” (when that elite effort was really the kid’s mom or dad running the show behind the scenes). Our child is labeled lazy and asked to try a little harder. He ends up overwhelmed or blocked. We get angry at the injustice of it all and step in to support our own child, thus adding to the vicious cycle of it all.
Step away from the school project, Mom and Dad! Whenever you step in, you take away your child’s power, thereby instilling learned helplessness. A school career without challenge leaves students less able to develop and succeed, according to notable researcher Carol Dweck.
Plus, when we step in like that, we teach our kids poor ethics. So, when I want to help (more than I know I should), I think forward about 30 years and remind myself that my kid needs to prepare for life without adult help — or interference.
3. They talk back to you.
For as much as we like to say modern parents have evolved passed the “It’s my way or the highway” parenting mindset, we still often take everything our child yells at us (or whispers behind our backs) very personally. “Don’t talk back to me!” we indignantly shout back.
Yet, our kids need to test their opinions and feelings on us because we’re the safest people they know. They’re still just learning how to say what they mean accurately, directly, yet respectfully. Most adults still struggle with that. So, when your kid is learning, develop a tougher skin for a while.
Besides, research shows that kids who talk back become more successful adults. And, just because they’re giving us shade doesn’t mean they’re doing it to others. Our kids look in our eyes and see themselves, and when they’re sorting themselves out, it is not always a pretty picture. When they shout back, try to respond with as much love for them as discipline. (After all, how YOU respond should model what healthy communication looks like).
Talking back helps kids gain the confidence to create boundaries, defend themselves, and it also helps them develop analytical thinking.
4. They sometimes cave and follow the crowd.
Our children want to fit in! That’s a good thing! Of course, this depends on the crowd they’re following.
If they’re sneaking around on an inappropriate website or, if they decide to join a gang of teens who think drugs make them cool zombie vampires, put a stop to that. Yet, sometimes our kid’s best friends are the ones actually protecting our child from even worse friends.
My own mother never knew why I stopped hanging out with the “in” crowd, but she’d be pleased to know it was because I didn’t want to go to parties with alcohol. We don’t always know what a BFF is doing behind the scenes to help, and we usually only find out when they get into trouble together.
Unless drugs, alcohol, or sex are involved, kids are usually capable of figuring out what’s a bad idea or not by experiencing direct consequences from their actions (instead of the ones we inflict). It takes a great deal of parenting courage, but we must let go sometimes, when it’s age-appropriate, and let our kids fly free and experience the results of bad choices.
5. They dress weird.
I confess; I still dress weird. As a writer and an intuitive coach, I like color and cool combinations of clothes, and I mix and match a lot. If my mother hadn’t let me pair her own retro handmade macramé belt with my party dress when I was a kid, I wouldn’t be so creative with fashion now.
What might look avant garde to you is probably totally “in” at school. Kids use fashion to express who they are, and that’s why we need to let them wear whatever they want, as long as it’s safe and decent. (Yes, even if it’s the same comfy shirt for weeks at a time.)
6. They give up and quit.
My husband and I have a rule: If you sign up for it, you have to follow through for a semester. This rule worked for the most part in our house. It made our kids reliable and resilient, knowing they couldn’t always get what they wanted, when they wanted it.
Although, I do admit, I’ll always wonder if I’d taken my son off the soccer field when he was yelling, “I hate this game!” from the sidelines, if he’d be a more confident person with other decisions. After a decade of hindsight, I’d now sit him down and ask what alternative sports interest him. He’d probably tell me T-ball all the way. The whole point of activities is to let kids try a few and find what they like.
Bottom line: Mistakes happen!
If we let our kids make their own choices — good or bad — they’ll learn and grow as people. Yes, we hate to see them hurt, but discomfort leads to change. With a few mistakes solved under their belts, they emerge empowered, self-reliant, and more confident as adults (not victims who run home to mommy as soon as they hit a setback).
Our kids’ mistakes are simply steps along a learning curve they MUST navigate as they journey toward adulthood. If we think of their (and our) flawed moments as learning moments, we’ll feel a lot happier and they’ll turn out a lot healthier and more resilient.
So turn off the helicopter blades, Mom and Dad, and go make some mistakes of your own. Enrich your life, and realize your kids’ mistakes truly do enrich theirs.