One of the biggest challenges of being a parent (after learning the self-control necessary to not eat all the Halloween candy after bedtime) is finding the balance between protecting the kids and letting them make their own mistakes. For example, my kids have made the mistake of not hiding all their left over Halloween candy. I believe in using natural consequences.
Aside from lessons about candy security, deciding when to protect kids is often pretty obvious. I don’t feel any ambivalence about not letting my kids ride my motorcycle because 1) it doesn’t have a seatbelt and 2) it’s a motorcycle. Similarly, I don’t worry that I’m being too permissive when I let them ride their scooters at the park. It’s the area between scooters at the park and underage motorcycle driving that’s grayish.
Here’s an example: homework. In the last couple of weeks, both my kids have left their homework at school. My first instinct is to run back to the school to see if we can rescue their assignments from their desks or call their teacher and ask what they need to get it done. On the one hand, I want them to excel academically so they can support me in my
old middle age. If there’s one thing I learned in school, it’s that academic excellence is predicated on doing homework and turning it in. On the other hand, they have to learn to do these things for themselves since I hope to be vacationing on a beach in Greece through their college years and, therefore, won’t be around to remind them to study before all of their final exams rather than afterwards. With the homework issue, I elected to 1) give them homework of my own (math facts practice, extra free reading, etc.), 2) let them face the music with their teachers in the morning, and 3) have them make up the missed homework the next day. I know I’m making the right choice because by letting them fail a homework assignment I’m helping them establish good work and study habits that will serve them better throughout life than any single elementary school spelling test or math worksheet could ever dream.
The trickiest types of mistakes to allow are the ones that move beyond a day’s homework and leave nothing but Regret in their wake – the types of choices that we adults look back on in our own lives and feel a stab just over the stomach and under the heart. When I think of my own regrets I can fabricate a pale, silver lining for some by using them to motivate me to make better choices now. Some just create an ache that no positive spin can lessen. I suspect that, deep down, I’m not alone in having these types of regret whether we all admit it or not.
I think a lot of parenting decisions may come back to the way we parents experience our regrets. Here are two possible explanations that I came up with just now after literally no thought. Also, these explanations are complete opposites of one another.
Maybe, if a parent is frequently overwhelmed by the unmitigated, angry-black-hole-just-above-the-stomach regrets, they’ll try harder to control every last bit of their kids’ lives in an effort to prevent them from feeling the same way. Meanwhile, it could be that parents who’ve been lucky enough to have stumbled through life making only the little sorts of mistakes that have easy-to-identify silver linings will be more likely to let kids just go about the business of making choices without too much concern for the potentially dire consequences of really bad ones.
Perhaps parents who’ve managed to get through things without a lot of major regrets feel that they know the right way to do things and, therefore, try to direct their kids’ choices along the same lines. And perhaps parents that have made decisions that they regret enormously, but who have lived on and found a peace nonetheless, are less fearful of letting their kids do things wrong because they know that, one way or another, we all have a cross to bear and we may as well choose it for ourselves.
So, what’s a parent to do? Here’s my three point plan:
First, get a handle on my own stuff. Figure out what my own fears are. Pay attention to the things about raising my kids that scare me. It’s a never-ending process, really, because every day my kids present me with new things to freak out about. “Oh, no! my son doesn’t want to clean his room. What if he turns into a lazy, selfish person who always expects others to do his work for him?!”
Second, put it into perspective. Remind myself that when a seven year old doesn’t want to clean his room, it’s not actually the budding of lazy, selfish, malignant narcissism. It’s a seven year old who’s being a seven year old. I’m not going to look back 15 years from now and think, “It all started that time when he was seven and he said he didn’t care if his room was a mess.”
Third, forget about trying to find a perfect parenting “ideology” and just try to be a decent person in my dealings with the kids. It’s always comforting to have a system to use to make decisions. Ideology gives us shortcuts so that we won’t have to agonize over every decision we make. This is as true in parenting as it is in any other endeavor. Some parents routinely fall back on the importance of respecting authority and order. Others always defer to a hands-off, minimalist approach. Rigidly ideological parenting ignores the distinction between the little regrets we learn from and the big regrets that haunt us. Both hands-off and authoritarian parenting styles will screw things up if they’re applied across the board. Kids need a hands-off approach sometimes so they can explore and grow in their own direction and sometimes they’ll need an authority to keep them safe and make them tow the line.
I want to give my kids as much freedom as possible to make their own choices, but still keep them as safe as possible from the types of choices that have irredeemable consequences. So if my son doesn’t keep his room as tidy as I would, there’s a decent chance that maybe this is something that doesn’t need to be a battle. But if he’s not learning somewhere that we all have to put in some work for the things we want to have (be it a clean room or good soccer skills or friendship), or if he’s creating a bio-hazardous soup in his room, then maybe a parent’s intervention is called for.
And also, kids need to be protected from too much Halloween candy. That stuff will rot their teeth out.