On the Importance of Letting Your Kids Make a Mistake

The Bear and I had some friends over the other day. As the ‘responsible’ adults were chatting in the front yard, the kids wandered off. When we realized they weren’t around, we started calling for them up and down the street. Even though they were in a group, they are only pre-schoolers. They appeared in the backyard – coming through the back gate. I cringed when I saw them all in bare feet and realized that they had walked down the back alley without shoes. I was torn. I was not impressed with the Bear (I knew she was the ring leader) but I was also admiring the fact that they had made it around the block by themselves. I was also thinking about the broken glass that was likely to be found in the alley and how it could now be in their feet.

This past week, I read an article about risk in the UK’s Guardian. Written by children’s advocate, Tim Gill, it is a call for rethinking how we expose kids to risk. The article re-ignited some of my thoughts about the importance of letting children make mistakes. In other words, it is only by allowing children to make mistakes (and this always involves exposure to risk) that they really learn. It is through mistakes that children learn about which risks to take, how to weigh out the pros and cons, and how to deal with the consequences.

When all the parents tell little Johnny to get off the top of the wall because it is too high, how is little Johnny to learn about his limits or abilities or discover the power in deciding for himself? Perhaps little Johnny falls off that wall and breaks his arm, wouldn’t you feel awful that you didn’t stop him? But at some point, he needs to know what is ‘too high’ and be able to assess this for himself without someone else doing it for him. Beyond physical risks, children need to be given the opportunity to take a risk in meeting new people or attempting a new activity without a parent assessing the situation (and therefore, risk) for them. They will only hone this skill through making mistakes. Maybe the new kid at the playground shuns them or the new activity is too difficult. But they need to experience the error in their judgment rather than have someone else make the judgment for them. And I think that this is the hardest thing to do as a parent, to sit back and watch your child make a mistake.

So there I was with the Bear and her friends in the backyard. They were perfectly fine – there was no glass in anyone’s feet and they were oblivious to the fact that they had successfully navigated their journey without an adult. And even though my mind was full of the ‘what ifs,’ I knew that even if something had happened, it would have been a learning experience. Without experiencing difficulty, uncertainty, or the pang of misjudgment, we don’t grow. And isn’t that our role as parents? To help our children grow? We need to swallow that ‘better safe than sorry’ mantra and watch our kids make mistakes. We can be guides and act as a resource, but we need not live our children’s lives for them. Let them make a mistake.

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