The Blessings of Mistakes: How I Wish I Had Allowed My Children to Experience More Consequences
One of the hardest lessons I learned as a parent was that my attempts to do everything for my children deprived them of opportunities to learn and grow.
I was a latchkey kid from a broken home and had longed for more hands-on parents when I was young. As an unintended result, my parenting style bordered on helicoptering.
I wanted to save my children from the heartache and mistakes of my youth. If they forgot a book at home that they needed at school, I brought it to them.
If they got into trouble, I rescued them. Now I realize that my doing for them what they could have done for themselves probably hindered their organizational skills and responsibility in some ways.
Everything I did for my children came from a place of love. And some of what I did was indeed very good for them.
I take some pride in my adult daughter thanking me for making her use a dictionary to look up words instead of just telling her what words meant, for instance, a skill she saw lacking in some of her colleagues.
But some of what I did was misguided. I tried to provide every opportunity for my children that I thought I had missed out on as a child.
I gamely led my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, though I am still unsure if she enjoyed that. I enrolled my children in extracurricular activities of every sort (at least until they rebelled enough to choose their own).
I volunteered as much as possible at my children’s schools, though my presence at school dances was horrifyingly embarrassing to them. I made it a point to know all of my children’s friends, but know I asked too many questions.
Intellectually, I agreed with her suggestions; emotionally, however, I had trouble following them.
If we are doing our job right as parents, our children gradually learn how to be independent. And, sometimes, they push us away. As my kids grew into pre-teens and teenagers, however, I had difficulty letting go and I certainly learning the blessings of mistakes.
A friend described the phenomenon of teenagers behaving negatively toward their parents just before they leave for college as “dirtying the nest.” It makes some sense that teens would push limits and try to make home seem less attractive—at least subconsciously—to prepare themselves to leave home. I noticed this dynamic in my own home and in the homes of some of my friends.
If I could have a parenting do-over, I would have allowed my children to experience the consequences of their actions more. I would refrain from bailing them out of sticky situations. I would not have pestered them with so many questions. I would have given them more space.
All of that being said, my adult children are amazing humans. I am gratified to watch their journeys and to see them following their passions. It took me a while to feel comfortable allowing my children to make their ways in the world without my interference and to offer advice only when asked. But the dividends of making more room for them included their sharing more of their lives with me, voluntarily.
Every situation presents a chance to learn something, if we are open to the lesson. I used to run from conflict or difficult situations, and shielded my children, to the best of my ability. Now I practice the pause and listen more. And allow my children—and myself—to continue to learn.
Maria Leonard Olsen is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, author, motivational speaker and radio show host. Her latest book is 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life (Rowman & Littlefield 2018).