When to Let Them Fail

I can see the scene in my memory as though I am still staring out the window. My then 8-year old son was waiting for the school bus in a torrential downpour. With a bit of guilt, I thought to myself, “He can handle waiting in the rain - no big deal, he needs to develop some grit,” Of course I was watching from a dry bedroom window. He crossed the street to the bus and a paper bag he was carrying ripped open, dumping the contents in the middle of the wet road. Without thinking I ran out and helped him scoop everything up, kissed him quickly, and sent him on his way. But of course, then I was soaked, my feet were freezing, and I felt a bit odd standing in my bathrobe in the middle of the street of my brand new neighborhood. That said, I helped my little boy. But I thought, should I have let him figure it out on his own and develop some resourcefulness?

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Fast forward and my now 15-year old daughter failed to turn in an assignment on time (it was due on a day the class didn’t meet, and I considered writing an email to complain, but I stopped). In my experience as a teacher, I know it’s best for the teacher and student to communicate directly, at least at first. And, even with the best intentions, a parent stepping in before a student advocates for themself can confuse matters. So I let my daughter go in and fend for herself. She didn’t get the points back. But, she did learn a valuable lesson to honor deadlines.

It’s really hard to see your kids struggle and we are tempted to step in and help. However, when does helping become enabling? How do we, as parents, balance the desire to step in with the knowledge that stepping back may be better in the long run? And what if we make a mistake along the way? Will our children be spoiled for a lifetime? If our natural instinct is to immediately jump in and save our kids, how will we know when they really need our help? When are we helping and when are we enabling them? The way I see it, you do your best to mitigate circumstances while keeping some perspective. Your top priority is your child’s safety, and your second job as a parent is to raise an independent adult. So, with that in mind, step in when it’s a concern of safety. And if we want to raise independent adults, step back, when appropriate and let them advocate for themselves. Think to yourself, “what is the purpose of my action? Does this action help them achieve independence?”

All that said, sometimes we will step in when we “should” have stepped back. It’s natural to want to comfort or shelter your child and ok to do that. Just know that when you do choose to step back. it means you’re teaching them that they are capable of problem-solving and that you will stand by them and support them as they do that. So go ahead and offer them a little TLC, a hug, a movie night, or maybe go out for an ice cream. Show them how you cope with disappointment and failure and then help them to figure out how they can do the same for themselves.

Advocacy looks very different when they are toddlers than it does when they are teens. And, when you goof and step in too quickly, note it so you can try not to repeat. You don’t have to beat yourself up - after all, you’re still learning to parent and will continue to learn for a lifetime. And if you don’t step in when they need you, help them to see what they were able to manage all on their own.