At the end of a long, fun day at the water park with her dad, 9-year-old Nora decided she wanted to tackle one last slide before going home. It was the “big kid’s slide,” and she’d avoided it for years. With her father’s okay, Nora climbed the stairs, took a deep breath, and hurled herself down the plunging free-fall. Then she threw up.
Her dad, Jeremy, had not pressured Nora into going on the slide, but he’d had no qualms about letting her go. By the park’s rules, Nora was more than tall enough for that slide. There were lifeguards. What’s more, she was typically a skittish child, often afraid to take risks or try new things. Though Jeremy was surprised by Nora’s interest in the slide, he thought it was a step in the right direction. As Nora cried over being sick—and repeating over and over again she never should have gone on the slide, and how could he have let her do that?—Jeremy told her that he was proud of her for trying something new, that she learned something important, and that everyone gets sick sometimes.
As parents, of course we want to protect our children—from danger, from upset, from things not turning out how they hoped. But we also need to realize that it’s not just okay, but essential, to let our children make mistakes. Jeremy had been right to let Nora go on the slide: By deciding to try something that was a little beyond her comfort zone, Nora was testing her independence and summoning up her courage—and growing. The outcome might not have been entirely pleasant, but she was safe. And a week later, she’d all but forgotten the unpleasant aspect of the experience; instead, the memory she shared with others was a gleeful, and unmistakably proud, “I went on Geronimo!”
As parents, our responsibility is to keep kids unharmed. That doesn’t mean shielding them from all possibility of defeat. It means letting them fail safely. That’s difficult, especially when it results in sadness, anxiety, or regret. But as psychologist Madeline Levine recently wrote in the New York Times, if you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business. What’s key in Nora’s story was that she felt safe enough with Jeremy and with her own abilities to try something new. That’s the feeling that must be fostered in order to help our children grow into confident, autonomous adults. Here’s how to help your child take risks—and make mistakes, inevitably—safely.
Aim to be reliable, but non interfering. Ask yourself: Can my child handle this situation safely? Most children are not naturally reckless. But they don’t have the ability, as you do, to pay attention to details and be aware of all dangers. A child who desires doing so should be allowed to climb a tree—unless the tree is full of swarming bees and the child is allergic. What’s not okay is preventing your child from doing something to save yourself exclusively from your own worry.
Involve him in the decision-making. Explain the differences between two hikes—this one’s harder, this one will be longer—and then let your child choose. Or pick out his outfits. So what if he goes to school wearing mismatched socks (or worse?) So long as he’s decent, and comfortable, he’ll learn what works for him—and what doesn’t. An adult friend of mine still vividly remembers that moment in kindergarten when some other kids made fun of the striped knee socks she’d chosen to wear. At first, she was angry at her mother for letting her out of the house “like that,” but the eventual decision to continue wearing the socks anyway was one she made on her own, and proudly.
Let her solve her own problems. Too often, either because it’s easier or because we hate to see them struggle, we rush in quickly to help our child figure something out, whether it’s zipping her own coat or pouring her own glass of juice. Sure, it may take a few (or more) attempts; maybe there will be some spills. But children develop self-confidence when they figure out how to do things on their own. Letting your child try and try again—and eventually get it right on her own—teaches her more about herself, and about life, than rushing in to save the day. You can still be her hero, but let her be her own hero, too.
Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011). Follow Peggy on Twitter andFacebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com