Why We Should Allow Children to Learn Tough Lessons

This week’s regular Writing Excerpts post has been replaced by a piece written for Day 3 of Jeff Goins’ Blog Like a Pro: 7-Day Challenge. The challenge has been intense, and I’m behind schedule, but I am resolved to finish all of the assignments by the end of this week. I’ve written and discarded at least four posts for this Day 3 assignment, but I finally hit upon a topic that I feel fits with the family area of my blog.


We need to allow our children to learn, mature, and take responsibility for their actions and decisions – or lack thereof. I’ve always been a fan of this idea, and I thought that I was doing a pretty good job of it. But you know what? I’m not. That’s embarrassing to admit, but there it is. Learn from my mistake, especially if your children are still young.


There Are Many Aspects of Responsibility

I thought having my boys do chores around the house and not buying them lots of stuff was teaching them responsibility. It sort of was. They don’t often ask for things because they know we will tell them to save for what they want. They also know the house gets pretty cold if they don’t bring in any wood on a chilly day, and that they’ll have a mountain of laundry to fold if they don’t stay on top of it.

But I have come up short in one area. My major parenting fail has really been driven home to me this year.


The Story

My older son attends a university with a bit of a different schedule. School 3 months, work 3 months… alternating continually until graduation. The students are responsible for finding their own co-op jobs and lodging for their work terms.

When classes began last summer, we reminded him that he should be looking for a job, an apartment, etc. He managed to get a job, but didn’t seem to have a clue what to do next. I sent him a few apartment links and suggested he ask around campus about possible housing options for the work term. He didn’t. (Actually he said he did, but with a little digging we found out he only talked to two people.) He came home from his first study term last autumn and had one week to get a place to live.

Guess what? Full of mom-stress, I ended up taking care of it… doing all of the research, making all of the phone calls, setting up an appointment, driving him to look at it – yep, all those things I thought I would never do.

Fast-forward. The apartment worked out. He finished his work term and moved back to college in early January. About a week after classes started, we told him that he needed to get started on finding an apartment (his previous one was no longer available) and a roommate since the new apartment would likely be much more expensive. There would be no parental involvement this time.

Fast-forward again. There were a couple of reminders and phone conversations. We made suggestions about checking the co-op office, bulletin boards and online campus message boards. One amazingly desperate plea came from my son: “Mom, do you have any links for roommate boards for my college?” My jaw hit the floor. “I dunno, maybe ask the students right next door in your dorm hall and in your classes?!”


And Now… Here We Are

My poor, young, book-smart, introverted son. I feel for him. I really do. He comes home this weekend and will once again have one week to move, or else he will have to drive 1.5-2 hours each way to work every day. He doesn’t like driving, especially on freeways and in cities. We thought that would be motivation enough for him to get an apartment close to work. Apparently not, because he didn’t find a place yet.

And I am stating right here that I will watch this unfold and not do a single thing to fix it.

In the end, it will be good for both of us. He will learn new skills — either how to find a place to live or how to drive in traffic every day — and I will learn to step back and let my boy grow into a resourceful and competent man.

I realize now that I was the parent who reminded him of deadlines, paperwork he needed to do, doctor/dentist appointments, that he needed a haircut. To my son, I also played the part of the wise parent with all of the answers. That was a disservice to both of us. To him, because he did not learn to take care of those things on his own as early as he should have. To me, because it added unnecessary responsibility and stress to my life.


What Can You Do?

Let your kids grow up and become responsible.

Don’t remind them 6 times that it’s time to get up for the day. Buy them an alarm clock, or wake them up once.

As they get older, don’t tell them to wear a coat. They can figure out it’s cold outside.

Example: My 14-year-old refuses to wear a coat. We stopped fighting about it this year after I talked him into wearing it twice on the coldest days of the year (seriously cold, like -10°F) and then watched him stuff it into his backpack on the way out to the bus. The fact that I finally gave up on this fight only after the whole apartment-finding experience with my older son is not lost on me.

Don’t pack your child’s backpack. Don’t bring their homework or lunch or library book to them when they realize they’ve forgotten it and call you in a panic. Practice saying, “Oh, you forgot it? I hope you will remember it tomorrow.”

Don’t replace your teenager’s phone or other electronic device every time it gets broken or lost. It really does blow my mind when parents do this, and it happens alllll the time.


Responsible Children Become Responsible Adults

Parents, allowing your children to deal with the consequences of life is the best thing you can do for them. Love them, support them, but please let them learn to be responsible. I’m right there with you, trying to raise good children with the skills to build a full and happy life. That means they need to be able to handle things on their own and learn from their mistakes.

And you know what? They usually figure it out so much more quickly than we think they will! (I’m counting on it!)

A few days ago I published “Building a Life – A Manifesto” — have you read it yet? Click here to read it.

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