On Making Mistakes

baby_suitcaseOwen was 8.  His brother’s friend was 14. We were all in the car driving to the lake for the weekend.  The friend called his mom.  “Did you remember to pack my contact lens solution?”  “You didn’t!  Mom, you always forget that!”

I looked at Owen in the rearview mirror.  He was staring at the friend with a look of serious concern.  Once the friend was off the phone he asked, incredulously, “Did your mom pack your suitcase?”

“Not very well!” the friend replied.  Owen began to giggle. “My mom has never packed my suitcase!”  Although this was not completely true, Owen had never known a day that he did not pack his own suitcase.

The youngest of 4 boys, Owen has always thought he was as old and as capable as his brothers.  Early on, I would give the older boys written lists of items to pack for trips. Owen could not yet read, but asked me to draw pictures of what he needed.  Pretty soon he could not be bothered with the list and just made his own packing selections.  Admittedly, he has a preference for packing light.  Once for a week at the lake house he packed a toothbrush, two swimsuits, a white t-shirt, and his church clothes.  He managed just fine.

Perhaps it was the capitulation of an overwhelmed mom,

perhaps it was a well-considered parenting philosophy, or mostly likely something in between, but from our boys’ earliest days we have encouraged in them the greatest level of self-management possible.

Our goal is for our boys to leave home for college ready to live adult lives of responsibility and self-control.  To avoid the typical terrifying leap into the abyss of independence we see many kids experiencing, often with rather disturbing consequences, we have tried give our boys as long a leash as possible while at home.  At times, we have to yank on the leash a bit, but better to see and be able to react to troubles while we are still holding the leash than in years to come when they are completely unattached.

The more years we spend in this parenting job, the more convicted we are that children must have room to make mistakes.  Of course we hope that they don’t make life-altering mistakes.  Of course we exercise a degree of parental oversight and accountability to give them age appropriate protection as they grow and learn.  But we must also give them room to make mistakes.  Our goal is not to have them perfectly under our control but rather that they grow in self-control.  And while we do our best as parents, we believe that self-control is ultimately a blessing of the Holy Spirit, so most of all we pray.

Learning through mistakes starts early as children learn to manage their possessions, and the same principles apply in many areas of their lives.Edward in jacket

You are heading out to the park with your three-year-old.  It has gotten a bit cool overnight. As you prepare to leave, you get your jacket and mention that they might need one also.  They might be the kind of kid that thinks “Good Idea” and goes to get one.  Some kids are like that…all their lives.  They learn things the easy way. However, if they are like most kids, they don’t want to bother with a jacket.

You arrive at the park.  He plays a bit then get cold.  Some kids just play harder, never admit that they are cold, but decide to bring their jacket next time.  Others come to you saying, “I’m cold.”

How do you respond?

The temptation is to say, “I said you might need a jacket.  Next time you should listen to me.  Here is a jacket I brought for you.”

What has your child learned?  I am stupid.  Mom is smart.  Mom will rescue me.

You might say,  “I said you might need a jacket.  You didn’t listen.  Now you are just going to have to be cold.”

What has your child learned?  I am stupid, and mom is mean.

Instead you might say, “Oh honey, I am sorry you are cold.  What would you like to do about it?“

What has he learned?   Mom is kind, and I have a problem to solve.

He then decides how cold he really is.  He might just go play regardless, but remember his coat next time. He might be truly uncomfortable and suggest going home early, despite wanting to be at the park.

If leaving is an option, pack up and go home.  On the drive back don’t distract from the life lesson with nagging words.  And if you have older kids, who did bring jackets, who are not happy to leave, all the better for the younger one’s learning curve.

If leaving is not an option, and your child is not going to be harmed by the cold, then just stick it out, with all the sympathy and good cheer you can muster.

In the rare case when it is really too cold and leaving is not an option, then you can pull out a blanket or old wrap you stuck in the car, saying with a bit of pleasant surprise, “Oh look, here is a something that will keep you warm.  Whew, aren’t you lucky.“

Of course, you could avoid all this trouble by just giving your three-year-old a direct command that they must bring a jacket and insuring by close supervision that they follow your instructions.   But you might still be doing the same thing at 18!  And you might also find yourself constantly telling them to remember not only their jacket, but also their lunch, homework, and gym clothes.

Or you can just let them learn, often by failing repeatedly, to be responsible for keeping up with the things they need.  I highly recommend this approach.  It is much easier for you and better for them.  I have a theory that the much discussed lack of development of the pre-frontal cortex in adolescents is due in part to a culture of helicopter parenting that doesn’t allow kids the freedom to make mistakes or to experience the consequences of mistakes. That is a big topic for another day.

I am happy to report that so far this approach to managing possessions has had great results with all four of our boys ages 21-16.  I can think of very few times, even going back to early elementary school, that I have ever had to deliver a forgotten item.  Of course, now that I am sharing this with the world I am sure to get a panicked call from school asking me to bring a uniform. Funny how it seems most anything I write is immediately tested in my life!  But generally the boys are characterized by responsibility in this area.  They even routinely remind me of forms they need me to sign for school and approaching deadlines. And if they need to wash the uniform, pack the lunch, or write the check, they take care of it.

They even handle with ease challenges that I find intimidating.  A week before seventeen-year-old John left for a 6-week exchange program in New Zealand, a friend asked if I had him ready to go.  I answered that I had given him the packing list the school sent me and bought a gift for his host family but otherwise had no idea of the status of his preparations. I assumed he would be ready to go, and he was.

As to our college boys, we move them into the dorms the first of their freshmen year, and they manage their stuff from then on, arranging moving help and summer storage as needed. They have credit cards and Amazon Prime accounts to take care of new needs that arise.

It is just a jacket today, but take the same basic story and responses and imagine that it is an interaction with your 25-year-old about a job instead of a jacket and is about being broke instead of cold.

“I said you might need a job.  Next time you should listen to me.  Here is some money I brought for you.”

“I said you might need a job. You didn’t listen.  Now you are just going to have to be broke.”

“Oh honey, I am sorry you are broke.  What would you like to do about it?“

Let them learn the lesson with the jacket, even if they get cold.

You will be glad you did.

Shorts and 5 degrees!

Shorts and 5 degrees!

Sometimes they never learn!

Sometimes they never learn!

This essay was written by Molly Lindsey Powell for the blog In-House Counsel. Future posts in the “On Making Mistakes” parenting series will cover what Molly’s boys have taught her in the areas of meals, bedtime, homework, cleaning rooms, use of free time, and driving.   To get essays on these and other topics (not more than one a week) delivered via email please go to In-House Counsel to Follow.


21 thoughts on “On Making Mistakes

  1. Beth Dodd

    Great post. I also give my four kids a packing list, but I must admit I check behind my 8 year old daughter and actually prefer to pack her myself. I want her to have matching bows for every outfit although she’d prefer to have none, nor a brush for that matter. 🙂 Curious, at what age do you teach the boys to do laundry?

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      At least we don’t have to worry about matching bows around our house! Although, I will concede that at times my self packed boys don’t look as sharp as I might prefer on trips, but with few exceptions I let it slide. For a recent family wedding I checked everyone’s bag-because it was MY interests I was protecting. I taught them how to do laundry when they were big enough to reach in to get the clothes out, but doing laundry is not a regular part of their week. But in a pinch they can do it. And one of my favorite Andrew stories…he came home Christmas freshman year from college with a huge duffle bag stuffed with….clean clothes.

  2. catfishmom

    It always rubbed me the wrong way when the preschool teacher emailed or called me about one of the kids needing to bring a coat for recess. If they need a coat then they will remember to bring one next time OR they will be cold…either way, they will survive.

    I have only packed my kids’ suitcases on a very rare occasion…it works for our family, too, and if they forget something, lesson learned.

    Even husband Bill went on a family trip once and forgot all of his underwear…guess what, they had underwear at the store in the city where we were going…crisis averted!

    I am also happy to report that Franklin (college boy) did his own laundry all summer and over winter break….I love that he is moving toward self sufficiency (his wife will be thrilled, too!)

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      I think Owen has forgotten underwear on many an occasion…and he survived too! Good for Franklin! I really think that the college boys feel a sense of pride in growth toward self-sufficiency. Every little responsibility they assume helps because they are living in such an unreal world of extreme freedom and limited responsibility. When I was in school 8:00 am classes imposed some measure of accountability but it seems those are not common any more. FRanklin will be some catch!

  3. Lynette

    I love this! Although the way you handled it, option 3, was much kinder than my usual method of using option 2. Well, I learned a better way today. I agree making kids responsible for their own actions works. My now 6 yr old twins still remember leaving a toy behind at a friends house at age 4 and still remember to bring home their items. And, it only took one of the 2 boys forgetting his coat and not being allowed outside recess time for the boys to remind ME about their coats on the way out the door to daycare.

    Thanks for the insight and the kinder, gentler way to be firm but loving with this!

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      Thanks Lynette! Twins! You definitely needed to put responsibility where it belongs!

      As parents we feel compassionate to our children but know we shouldn’t be too soft and all too often err on the side of being “mean.” By giving them ownership of as much as is appropriate for their development (which I think is more than most “experts” would say) when they blow it we can show compassion for their problems while at the same time not taking ownership back by fixing them. The time comes quickly enough when we can’t fix our children’s problems- and they need to be ready.

      Thanks for reading and for the insightful comment. So interesting how one twin learned from the experience of the other.

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      I came late to those books but read one about three years ago. I was looking for something to recommend to some friends and found an article online that lead me to them. Very good resource!

  4. Coming East

    Great post! I hope a lot of young mothers read this so they can take advantage of the good advice you give. As for this old mom, wish we could have do-overs. I was the mom running up to school to bring a child or two their forgotten lunch or the poster board they needed that they just told me about at the breakfast table with a panicked look on their face.

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      Thanks. There are lots of do-overs I’d like to have too in other areas. Maybe it was our parenting, maybe it was their father’s genetic contribution, but this was a pretty good area for us. I do think the fact that there were so many so close forced me to pass the responsibility. They knew that often even if Mom might want to bail them out I might just be unable to do so.

  5. terribell85

    This is a great post, very informative! I don’t have any children of my own yet but I look forward to trying out these techniques on my nieces and nephews and getting them polished for my own children one day.

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      Thanks terribell. It will be interesting to hear how your nieces and nephews react, especially if it is a different way for them. Your joy and enthusiasm will help make you a great mom some day. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Kay Wyma

    Hi Molly … A friend directed me your way. LOVE what you have to say on the topic of equipping kids. Any chance I could re-post on themoatblog.com … or, would you be interested in guest-blogging? I’m an avid linker 🙂 … No worries if not. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      Hello Kay, So glad you enjoyed the essay. Please feel free to repost with a link back to my site some way or another-whatever is easiest for you is fine. I plan to write on this general topic again next week (mealtimes and bedtimes) and every other week for several weeks. Thank you!

  7. Pingback: War and Peas | In-House Counsel

  8. Robin

    Again, thank you for speaking from experience that this sort of parenting is okay and even beneficial. A typical conversation around our house: Me: “Do you want to bring a jacket?” Boy’s reply: “No, I want to freeze to death today.” On the occasion that I actually give alternative appropriate choices for the child to pick from the way I’ve read good parents are supposed to do, my four year old usually picks something completely different, announcing, “It’s my choice.” Sometimes when I look around at the other docile, well dressed children, I have trouble keeping my sight on the end goal…young adults who can fend for themselves.

  9. lslawson

    It’s Leah Slawson. I stumbled on your blog and love it! I have started one this year ( windowintoschool.wordpress.com) from the perspective of a teacher who has parented both boy and girl through the age I teach ( 9th grade English). You and I seem to be on the same page philosophically about child-rearing. My ‘teacher’ blog is primarily written to my students’ parents to share this perspective. Keep up the good work. I’ve read about eight of your past post so far –good stuff here.
    Hope you and yours are all well.


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