Is It Good To Let My Kids Screw Up?
There are certain seasons in Rome, where my children were born, when the days begin cool and end in sunshine. When we lived there, my preschooler and I started every one of them with the following conversation:
Me: “Here’s your fleece. It’ll be chilly outside.”
Preschooler: “No, I don’t want it.”
Me: “You’ll be cold without it.”
Preschooler: “No, I’ll be sweaty.” (Or my favorite, “No, I don’t like it when it touches my hands.”)
“So be it,” I’d think as I zipped up my own jacket. Because I knew what was coming. And sure enough, the moment we stepped outside, one of us (hint: it wasn’t me) was suddenly shivering and screeching about being “soooooo cold.” Clearly, the lesson hadn’t been learned -- but I had no problem letting it sink in, one morning at a time.
The Rumor: It’s good to let your kids screw up because they learn
OK: A spring jacket is one thing, but what about letting a child spend his hard-earned allowance on something overpriced or bound to break immediately? Or letting him quit a team? Or fight with a friend? At what point does it make sense for a parent to step in, save your kid some pain and discomfort and give them a bit of your grown-up know-how?
The Verdict: The tactic only works if you coach your kids on what to do differently next time
Children do need to practice making decisions -- and dealing with failure -- before the consequences are too great. “If kids don’t have the space to experiment and periodically make mistakes, they’ll never learn how to problem solve and cope on their own,” says Christine Koh, co-author of “Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less.”
But there’s a right way to do it. The key? Coaching kids without being critical, says Ann Marie Albano, Ph.D., ABPP, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “I often send parents and children off to do something on purpose that will go wrong, such as to bake cakes together and to substitute baking soda for baking powder, just to see what will go wrong and then how to handle the situation,” she says. “Parents can be great coaches in asking the child questions: ‘Tell me about what happened. What do you think you can do differently next time? Can you brainstorm with me some ideas of what to do?’ Parents can act as guides, leading through problem-solving steps. But the child needs to be encouraged to put the steps into place on their own.”
Kids need practice with finances in particular. According to Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families,” 80 percent of kids entering college have never had a conversation with their parents about money: earning it, spending it, what it means to get into debt and so on. He says that the time for your kids to experiment with money is now, and the logic is this: It’s better to have your sixth grader be bummed that he spent five weeks’ worth of allowance on what turned out to be a fake snake on a string (like a certain husband of mine did back in the day) than to have said kid rack up 50 grand in credit-card debt by age 25.
The problem is, letting our kids slip and fall -- figuratively and literally -- runs counter to our instincts as parents. After all, our job is to keep them safe. As comedian Louis C.K. told David Letterman, “You have this thing: You’re supposed to raise them right. It’s not just, ‘Make them not die.’ You make them good people.”
I think we can all agree that “making kids good people” does not mean letting them fall to pieces every time they strike out, don’t earn the grade they wanted or get hoodwinked at the fair (snake buyers be warned). Albano, who is also the author of “You and Your Anxious Child: Free Your Child from Fears and Worries and Create a Joyful Family Life,” says you must let your kids make their own moves to become stable adults. Just provide the framework. “Your child isn't sure if she wants to join a group at school? Encourage her to ask questions of the kids in the club so she can learn more about it,” she says. “Don't do this for her, but do rehearse with her how to approach others. The teacher mis-graded an exam? Rather than calling up the teacher, role-play with your child on how she can ask the teacher to take another look at the assignment.”
The bottom line is this: Don’t step in and do the work for your kids. Don’t line up the perfect internship or correct a homework assignment after your child has gone to bed. Do ask questions, though, and do coach your kids through the possible outcomes ahead of time. If the damage is already done, take them through a play-by-play and help them figure out what to do the next time something like that happens.
And when in doubt, bring an extra fleece jacket.