Owen 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.
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.
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.