Learn from Experience: Allowing Kids to Fail Sometimes so they learn valuable lessons!

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column is a reprint from two years ago about letting your children learn learn from experience–or simply allowing them to fail.

Every now and then, an idea explodes through our collective consciousness, challenging our notions about how life works. It happened in the fifteenth century when Galileo argued that the earth was round. It happened in the eighteenth century when upstarts in North America decided they wanted to govern themselves. And I hope, for some of you parents, it may happen as you ponder this thought:

What if parenting is not about helping your kids accomplish certain tasks, but instead about raising them to want to accomplish those things by themselves?

Take the frantic morning routine that sends many parents careening for the Tim’s drive-through in desperation before it’s done. You yell and plead for the kids to get up, to no avail. So you yank off covers, rifle through drawers to find clothes, and hunt for the glasses Sally can’t locate, all while stuffing lunches into backpacks.

No one else seems to be able to hear that bus countdown that is ticking loudly in your own mind. Just when you’ve finally finished ensuring all your offspring is properly attired, one announces that he forgot to do his math homework. So you hunt for a piece of paper and a pencil and start multiplying, while you shove a cereal bowl towards him. By the time the children mount the bus stairs you’re exhausted, and it’s not even nine o’clock yet.

Unfortunately, most parents focus on helping their children complete tasks, instead of helping their children own those tasks. Then they never learn from experience!

What kids really need is not a mom or a dad who runs around afterwards picking up all the pieces. Kids need to learn to be responsible for themselves, or they’ll wind up moving back in when they’re 23, hoping you’re still around to get them off to their dead-end job. We are accepting too much responsibility.

I read of one mother who was so frustrated by her typical morning that she warned the children that if they missed the bus, and made her drive them to school, then they would have to clean up the kitchen that night in exchange. She explained the new arrangement, and then she shut her trap. She didn’t nag them about homework, or backpacks, or lunches, or breakfasts. She let them figure it out. They soon learned that they didn’t really enjoy cleaning out dirty pots and pans. And lo and behold, she got her mornings back.

Our society seems to believe that children’s behaviour reflects completely upon parents, and so parents tend to do too much to cover up for kids’ failures. All we’re doing, though, is encouraging irresponsibility. Why not make children responsible for the things that are rightly theirs? If they don’t get their homework done, they fail the test. If they fail the test, they lose TV and video game privileges. No more griping over homework. If teens want a car, they have to pay for the insurance, which means they have to get a job. And if they’re late for that job, they lose it. Their problem, not yours.

If your three-year-old can’t behave on a playdate, you leave. You don’t coax them or bribe them or flatter them. If your eight-year-old can’t find his hockey equipment, he misses the game. End of story.

Allowing children to fail teaches children what real life is all about. Turning ourselves into pretzels to help them get through that playdate, finish that homework, make that bus, or afford that cell phone doesn’t teach them anything except that irresponsibility doesn’t matter. Experience is the best teacher.

If you’re running ragged trying to fix your children’s lives, quit it. The world isn’t going to stop spinning if they miss that bus. Galileo figured that out six hundred years ago. Maybe it’s time we caught up.

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