How to Let Our Children Make Mistakes and Fail

It was the first overnight birthday party my daughter had been invited to since we had moved half way across the continent and she had started a new school.

Excitement buzzed in the air as we drove home and she regaled me with all the details. All the seventh-grade girls would be attending.

Everything seemed in order until Ashley mentioned the movies they were going to watch. All were fine, except one. A scary movie.

I knew that this movie would scare Ashley to about her limits. In a few years, no big deal, maybe. But where she currently was in maturity and scare-wise, she would probably be afraid for a while.

We talked about options one evening at bedtime. Her, under her bright coverlet of yellow scattered with large bright red and pink blooms that matched her personality, and me atop.

I explained that it was a scary movie and I definitely thought she would get scared by it. No, it was not a movie that was wrong to watch, but I didn’t think Ashley would benefit from watching it. If she did, she would probably be scared to be alone in the house and have trouble at bedtime after seeing it.

She agreed. She did not want to be scared, but she also wanted to be with the girls.

We tossed around a few options.

I could pick her up before the movie, which of course the girls had decided to watch late at night because what better time is there to scare one’s self than around midnight? But then Ashley would miss out on the morning activities.

I could call the mother and explain that Ashley was not allowed to see the movie. No. The other girls were excited to watch it and their parents were okay with it. No need to ruin the party.

Ashley decided to just go to bed while the girls watched the last scary movie. That way she wouldn’t be so tired the next day and she wouldn’t get scared. Problem solved. Plan made.

I knew this would be a hard choice for Ashley to keep and execute, but I agreed. This would be a learning experience and practice test for real life. In the not so distant future she would be making all her own choices.

As parents, we need to allow our children to make choices, which also means making mistakes. Some of their choices will be good, other paths or options we will question. Part of growing up and traversing life involves making mistakes and failing.

A hard job, we as parents have, is to let our children learn how to crash and burn while they are still at home, while their decisions are hopefully not too important. They need to learn how to make decisions, so when they leave home and are in charge of themselves they know how and can build on their previous success. 

A few days later I picked Ashley up from the crowd of late morning pajama clad girls all sporting adorable bed hair.

We hadn’t gone very far down the dusty half mile gravel drive when Ashley burst out, “I did it mom!”

When the scary movie was pulled out, she explained to the girls that she was going to bed because she didn’t want to be scared. And then she glanced at me, “I also said that my mother told I could not watch it.”

“No problem,” I laughed. ‘You can always blame your parents and make them the meanies. That way the girls will be mad at me, and not you.”

“You’ll never guess what the girls said,” she gushed. “They said I could watch it and you would never know. That they wouldn’t tell on me.”

“So what did you say?”

“I told them I would know, even if you didn’t. And if you asked, I would not lie to you.”

My heart swelled.

“It was hard, but I went to bed. And you were right. I heard a little of the movie and it was scary. Most the girls had a hard time falling asleep. And guess what?” She was practically bouncing in her seat.

“What?”

“Several of the girls came to me privately this morning and told me I had done the right thing and they admired my choice.”

I squeezed her hand.

If only life were always so easy and had such good results. Ashley had chosen to do the right thing, which would most likely make it easier to resist peer pressure and next time make another right choice.

I could have made the choice for her. Forbid her to see the movie. Picked her up just before midnight. I could have called the mother. But I am glad I did none of the above. It was a good decision for her to make and then fail or succeed.

Sometimes we are okay with our children making mistakes at sports, their music, academics, maybe even their chores once in a while. But letting our children mature and grow into young adults means allowing them to take more control of their life and choices, which invariably means they will make mistakes. And bigger ones then during a math problem.

Gulp! I know. This is hard. Birthing a 9-pound baby is easy compared to this.

Can we let our children study music at college instead of engineering? Can we allow them to date someone we disapprove of? Can we stand by un-accusingly when they buy a truck with their summer earnings when we think they should save it for college? Can we not lecture and guilt when our daughter comes home from college with a pierced nose or wearing a dress we would not have chosen out for her? Can we let their possible bad choices and mistakes in life not break our relationship and unconditional love we have for them? Can we let them learn from their mistakes?

As parents, we need to allow our older children to both fail and succeed, as they make more and more of their own decisions. Yes, our guidance plays a large part at first, until eventually they are adults and masters of their own life.

Sometimes they will make mistakes and choose the wrong direction, but while they are at home, this is a wonderful time to learn consequences and failing with not so serious choices. How much better that they learn the consequence of not being on time consistently at their first fast food job, then when they are supporting their wife and your grandchildren?

So how do we let our children make more decisions and in the process, make mistakes?

Be patient. They will make mistakes. No doubt about it. We all have and will continue to so don’t expect them to be the exception.

Listen to their ideas. Keep communication with them open. Listen more than you give your opinion. Asking questions to help guide their choice works better than lecturing or ordering or telling them they are wrong and will fail.

Stay level headed. If used correctly, mistakes can be great learning and life changing opportunities. We often worry our child will make some horrible mistake and ruin their life. Remember that God can redeem all mistakes and bad choices and use them to minister to our children and others. No pain or bad choice is ever wasted with God.

Let them know you are rooting for them and their success. Be their biggest cheerleader. Point out their good decisions. Believe in them even when they make mistakes. Build them up instead of tear them down. They will want to do their best and succeed. This is how God treats us. Through motivation and not by “you should have’s.”

See them for their potential (not their mistakes). None of us want to be remembered for what we did wrong. We instead, want to be seen as what we can become. We may not tell the truth 100 % of the time, but we want to be seen as honest. We may not be loving all the time, but we want to be seen as loving. God sees us through the righteousness of Christ. He sees us as already new creatures, even as we are still becoming new creatures.

Let natural consequences play out (so they learn from their choices). It is better that their boss fires them for being late, than you nagging them and shaming them each morning. It is better that the car keys are taken away after they break curfew, than you lecturing them about how a clock works for half the night. It is better that they discover to turn in their homework on time, then you driving it down to the school and turning it in for them.

Choose your battles wisely. My husband reminds me of this quite a bit. Do I want to battle over whether my son wears a coat to school or save my veto power for something a bit more important?

Learn to bite your tongue. This comes in handier the older your children become. When your college student calls at 2 am to ask you to proof read their paper, this is not the time to launch into why they should be getting enough quality sleep. You now have about as much control over their sleep habits as you do over their hygiene habits. When your child says, they have just bought a new house 5 states away, bite your tongue and don’t launch into how could they decide this important decision without asking your opinion. Eventually our children grow into adults and are responsible for their own lives.

Pray for wisdom for them and yourself. You both need all the wisdom you can get. God is faithful and will answer our prayers in ways we can’t even imagine.

Keep the relationship at all costs. No matter what, our relationship with our children is the most important thing we have with them. Keep those lines open and never give up on them. We may give up on God, but he doesn’t ever give up on pursuing us. He keeps the lines of communication always open so that we can reach him when we want to.

I was so proud of Ashley that day when I picked her up from the birthday party. Would every choice be so successful? No. But this was a major success her and I remembered and built upon.

Allowing out children to mature and make mistakes can be scary. Darn scary. But remember, our goal is to raise children that will spread their wings and thrive, more then they nose dive. 

This can only happen if we gently and slowly release our grip on them and let them learn to direct and control their own lives.

Join the Discussion: Any other advice you could add?


Accompanying this series, Life as it Comes, a story podcast, takes a humorous look at making mistakes in episode 31, “Have You Pulled a Theresa?” 

Stay tuned! (or subscribe and join the journey) next week: Part 5 of Making Mistakes.

Earlier posts in this series:
Yay for Mistakes! Part 1; What Do You Do?
Yay for Mistakes! Part 2; How to Respond to Mistakes
Yay for Mistakes! Part 3; Responding to Our Children’s Mistakes


This post first appeared at TheresaBoedeker.com

About the author : Theresa Boedeker

Theresa Boedeker

Theresa Boedeker, a lover of life and grace, likes to write about this crazy, messy, and wonderful adventure called life. She unwraps life with words to encourage, provide hope, and bring froth laughter. Her blog, Things to Remember, and entertaining story podcast, Life as it Comes, can be found at TheresaBoedeker.com.

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