Do Good Mom Let Kids Step Off the Ledge?

“When do you rescue your kids and when do you let them make mistakes?” A friend asked me this question at church Sunday. I wish I could say I had a brilliant answer, but if you’ve been hanging around The MOM Journey for a while, you know I wrestle with this question myself.

This mom job is all on-the-job training, and learning from experience doesn’t afford us the luxury of always knowing what to do in the moment. After the moment–it’s easy to look back and think, “Gee, I should have done this instead of that.”

I’ve also learned with both my girls that sometimes a thing happens and I don’t quite see it for what it is. Then the thing happens again, and it makes me cock my head and look at them a little sideways. Maybe by the third time it happens, my blinders fall off and I can see clearly. I learn from experience…but experience takes time.

For example, it took me a while to learn when my girls weren’t telling the truth. Kelli didn’t quite lieShe withheld information. Randi used distraction. She would tell me a story about this horrible thing some horrible child had done and I’d think, “How horrible!” only to discover she was covering up her own little crime. After a few instances of withheld information or distracting stories, I figured out my girls…but it took some experience.

So this business about learning to parent through experience makes it difficult to decide when we should let our kids make mistakes and step off the ledge or when we should rescue them. We don’t want our kids to endure harsh consequences because we–the parents, the grown ups–made the wrong decision.

We know our kids will gain wisdom from messing up. And bouncing back after a mistake teaches kids that failure isn’t final. And when our kids emotionally process a failure, often we don’t have to say a word. They get it–on their own.

So letting our kids make mistakes is important. Knowing which ones to let them make is more important. But how do we know? I’ll share a few ideas that might help us decide, and since I don’t have all the answers, I hope you’ll continue the conversation by sharing your experience in the comments following this post.

Physical Safety

I think we can all agree that this is the easy one. We don’t let our kids make mistakes that are harmful to them or others. Yes, we will make them wear helmets while riding their bikes. No, we won’t let them pack six kids into their car that only has seat belts for five.

Age Appropriate

This should be an easy one, too, but we may need to think about this more intentionally. Is the mistake our child is about to make age appropriate? In a culture that blurs the line between childhood and adulthood, sometimes it’s not easy for children to recognize a decision is too old for them. Sometimes it’s not easy for parents to recognize it either. Tattoos might be a good example here since they’ve become a trend with no end. What age is appropriate for a kid to make such a permanent choice about what to put on her body and where?

Family Values

The values that guide our family can also guide the mistakes we allow our children to make. For instance, Randi started college six weeks ago. That first year of college can be scary for kids–and even scarier for moms because we don’t know who our baby is hanging out with and what our baby is doing.

We have two college “nonnegotiables” that align with our family values. Our girls must make good grades, and they must attend a campus youth group. We refuse to let them make the mistake of tanking their GPA (not as long as we’re financing their future), and we refuse to let them make the mistake of not plugging in to a source of spiritual growth.

But sometimes it’s easy to get family values mixed up with parental preference. For example, I would prefer that my girls not dye their hair hot pink or purple, but if they choose to, it wouldn’t oppose a family value.

Consequences

The magnitude of the consequences can help us decide which mistakes to allow our kids to make. How bad is it really if our child forgets her lunch again, but this time we refuse to bring her lunch to school? Not so bad. In fact, if we hadn’t brought lunch to her the first time (or the fifth time), she probably wouldn’t have forgotten it this time, right? Consequences often teach better than we can. I think of the times my girls chose to rush the season and wear shorts before it was actually warm enough or decided to wear heels to school. In spite of my warnings, they chose seven hours of sore feet and goosebumps. But if we know our teenager will choose to go to the movies with friends rather than study for his chemistry final, we probably shouldn’t let him make that mistake. He obviously knows the consequences but isn’t mature enough to care.

As our children get older, the decisions aren’t as easy as a bicycle helmet or a forgotten lunch…especially when everyone else is going to the weekend party but our kid, and we are the worst parents in the world because we are too old to remember what it’s like to be a kid and we are so unfair and why do we want to ruin our kid’s life?

Boundaries

Sometimes we should let our kids make mistakes but attempt damage control by setting boundaries. For instance, when kids become teens, their friend options expand, and sometimes that’s not a good thing. But if we try to force an end to a poorly chosen friendship, we might find ourselves fighting rebellion and fueling the friendship instead. So…maybe we let our teens make that mistake and choose the wrong friend–after we discuss our concerns and set some boundaries. Maybe they can hang out at basketball games and other school functions, but they can’t hang out on the weekends unless they are at our house. Boundaries protect our teens and give them the chance to realize their decision may not be so great after all. Then hopefully they’ll make the right choice for the right reasons and not the wrong choice for the sake of rebellion.

I’m going to end this challenging topic with a conversation I had with my daughters recently. I reminded them we gave them a solid foundation. They grew up knowing their parents love them, Jesus loves them, education is important, and choices have consequences. But now all the choices are theirs…and so are the consequences. We won’t rescue them. (That last one may not be 100% true, depending. But if they believe it, it may influence better decisions.) In some ways, this was a liberating conversation. In other ways, it was a scary conversation. But in all ways, it was an important conversation.

What mistakes have you allowed your child to make? What did your child (and you) learn from the experience? What guidelines would you add to the list to help moms decide when to let kids make mistakes?

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Waiting for Butterflies has been out in the reader world for six months now. Can you believe it? Here’s something else I can’t believe. Butterflies reached a huge milestone for a debut novel last week by surpassing 100 reviews on AMAZON with an average of 4.9 out of 5 stars! Many of you are the reason for that! All the online hugs I could send you would never be enough to thank you!

Blessings!

8 Comments

  1. Sandy says:

    Wow! This is a hard subject for everyone. Each child is so different and has to be handled in a different way. Some are ready for you to let go and allow them to take over far sooner than others. I know it needs to be handled very carefully and that is hard to do at times. Prayer helps so much. Keep communication open and give lots of love and understanding. Thank you for sharing!

    • Karen Sargent says:

      You’re so right, Sandy! It amazes me how two children can come from the same parents, grow up in the same home, and yet be so different. So what works with one doesn’t necessarily work with the other. And letting your child be independent is a lot different than letting your child make a mistake when we know it’s a mistake. Prayer, yes!

  2. LM says:

    Very well said! I am with you lots of years of experience and as a parent you have to know three boundaries, the absolutes but also when to pick your battles. #stilllearning

    • Karen Sargent says:

      And just about the time I’d think I have parenting figured out, my girls would enter a new age/stage, and then I had more to learn (and am still learning).

  3. Pat Wahler says:

    I’m also aligned with the “pick your own battles” camp. Kids must be allowed to make some choices – its how they learn.

    • Karen Sargent says:

      Agreed! But it’s so hard to stand back and watch them make mistakes. But as an adult, I look back at the mistakes I made and see the value in them (not that lessens any regrets). 🙂

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