As a mom, I know how tempting it is to drop off the instrument your child forgot to take to school or to stop a mess before it’s made but, sometimes, these ‘teachable moments’ can build character, discipline and help your child be more responsible later in life.
We teach children through example, advising and, yes, through mistakes. We all learn from experience – good or bad – so children need to learn early on that there are consequences to their actions. When kids correct their own mistakes, especially before they happen, it encourages them to continue that behavior because if feels good, which builds self-esteem.
When something goes wrong – it hurts and they don’t want to feel that way again. I tell my own kids that feelings are not right or wrong, it’s what we do with those feelings that can make or break us. This applies to how we parent, too.
Just as never failing isn’t healthy or productive, neither is failing all the time so be mindful of your child’s situation and be consistent with consequences. Below are a few common questions to help get you through.
- How often do you let your child fail before stepping in? In our home, we had a “get out of jail free card” so if my boys forgot sports equipment or slept in and were late, they had one pass each quarter to avoid consequences. They both knew the rule and we (my husband and I) stuck to it. I believe for kids to learn, consistency is key. I wanted my boys to learn responsibility, to know I was there for them and to not create habits. Each family needs to find what works best for the parent and the child. Setting rules, expectations and then communicating them are critical to success.
- What types of failures should you let kids learn on their own? You need to pick your battles so I use the rule of 3. I put everything in 3 baskets.
Basket 1 – health and safety. Will the problem or consequence be life threatening or permanent? Then, yes, step in. After all, we are our child’s biggest and most important advocates. If it involves his health and safety, talk to your child about why you got involved and how to avoid the situation in the future.
- Basket 2 – not life threatening. For example, they left their homework on the counter or they placed the jug of milk too close to the edge of the counter so it’s going to spill. Albeit messy or an unfortunate outcome, it’s not the biggest deal. Receiving a bad grade or cleaning up the mess usually helps them learn for the next time.
- Basket 3 – the gray zone. This is case-by-case because you really need to think about the situation before you act on it, especially when emotions like anger or anxiety are high. The most important thing to remember is no matter what you choose to do, be consistent. For example, your son goes to his basketball game in another city with his warm up pants on and forgets to bring his shorts. OK, this is a true story. Based on the situation, I didn’t think he intentionally forgot his shorts and I knew the result of his forgetfulness would have caused undue embarrassment and let down his team, so I ran to a local store and bought him a pair of shorts. Remember, do what you think is best for your child and the situation.
- What are some ways you can help your child avoid failing without stepping in to rescue? Each child is different so knowing his strengths and weaknesses is important. Build on what a child does well. For example, my oldest son would always bring his homework home, complete it but perpetually forget to turn it in. I would try to recognize what he did right and advise him on what he could do better. “Gabe, you’re doing so well on your homework, don’t let it go to waste. Let’s set a reminder on your phone or put a ‘Do you have your homework?’ note on the door before you go out.”
Although it seems counter intuitive to let your child fail when you can help him avoid it, sometimes it’s okay to let him skin his knee a little to learn. When parents come to my office and have concerns about their child’s behavior, I always tell them to talk to their child, set a date, make the changes and never look back!