Letting Our Kids Fail

And the invaluable gifts that arrive when we do

Sometimes, the best parenting involves letting go.

One of my kids is struggling. Struggling to make a decision. Afraid to make the wrong one.

The decision will effect the rest of his life. No one else’s. Not mine. Not his father’s. His life.

Fortunately, the decision is not life threatening.

“What do I do?” he asks me.

Finding Your Voice

We humans learn best through action. Sure, we can preach about what matters, the lessons we’ve learned from life, but ultimately, none of it sticks and penetrates the heart and mind like experiencing it (whatever “it” is) for ourselves.

We find our voice, our inner compass through trial and error.

My son wants me to tell him what to do, to take the stress over making a decision off of his shoulders.

But removing the burden of responsibility and choice from his psyche would thwart his growth in the long run.

The Gift of Biting Your Tongue

Do I have a strong opinion? Absolutely. And when he asks for this, I share it with him. But to advise him is to remove an opportunity for his self-awareness; to shove my opinion as fact upon him is to deprive him of self-discovery.

Much better for me to bite my tongue until I taste blood than navigate and discern the world for my teen.

So instead, I listen.

Cultivating Autonomy

My son struggled with the “what if” of his decision. I listened as he played out each scenario.

I listened.

By the time he was finished, he looked like a balloon that had lost all of its air.

“We can’t control the actions of others or life’s outcomes. We can only control our choices, moment by moment.”

Needless to say, he didn’t like my answer.

Yet, he did make a decision. From my vantage point, the decision is based in fear and steeped in a need for survival.

But it is not my place as a parent of a teenager to tell him what to do. Again, the decision he is making affects him alone and is not life threatening.

Regardless of his decision and my opinion of it, he has taken a closer step in his autonomy. 

There are already consequences of his choice out of fear. It is downright painful to watch. 

But when a toddler falls and cries, we kiss the boo-boo and remind them they can just “get back up.”

When there’s salt in my son’s wound, I comfort him, reminding him that he did the best he could based on what he thought at that time.

Humans are self-correcting creatures. When we allow our kids to self-correct, making adjustments based on new information, independence is fostered.

Cultivating Confidence

The consequences of my son’s decision is offering opportunities for him to make new decisions. Those decisions are continuing to be fear-based.

“I’m in survival mode,” he says.

Okay then. He’s doing what he thinks he has to do. I remind him there’s always another way. 

(Again: No one is in danger, nothing is life threatening and the consequences of his actions affect him alone.)

I can see the self-proclaimed “survival mode” in the tightness of his jaw, the rolling of his eyes if I even hint at broaching the subject. Translation: I know what I’m doing here.

There’s a confidence brimming inside of my son now. He knows he’s supported — simultaneously knowing I’m not in favor of his decision yet respect his choice.

Cultivating Trust

When we surrender to what we can’t control, (i.e. another’s decision), a bridge of trust is built:

  • The trust you foster for your child is returned to you.
  • The trust your child feels from you bolsters inner trust in themselves.


I am not promoting trusting your teen to take illegal drugs until they “figure it out” nor am I suggesting a child decide on whether or not to treat a life-threatening condition.

Giving our children a chance to explore what works and doesn’t — while under our guidance — offers them the gift of self-awareness. 

Encouraging autonomy when the stakes are small, allowing them space to “fail” will offer first-hand experience in getting back up on their figurative (or literal) feet.

When Lightning Strikes

Sometimes it takes a strike of lightning to wake us up.

Last month, lightning struck Washington DC. Four people went under a tree for shelter. Only one survived.

Sole Survivor

Amber Escudero-Kontostathis is twenty-eight and the sole survivor of the Lafayette Square lightning strike. When the summer storm began, Amber and three others went for cover under a tree just north of the White House.

  • Six bolts of lightening struck down where the four were waiting out the storm. Six bolts of lightning within 30 seconds.
  • High school sweethearts, James Mueller (76) and Donna Mueller (75) died from the lightening under that tree.
  • Brooks Lambertson (29) died shortly after from injuries caused by the lightening.
  • Amber Escudero-Kontostathis went 10 minutes without oxygen to her brain and without a heartbeat at all.

Life After Lightening Strikes

Amber lives with the physical sensation of surviving a lightning strike on her body:

Her nerves are misfiring. Her foot will sometimes feel like it is bare in snow. On the worst days, she feels like there are “10,000 grains of salt moving through each pore” of her feet. Source: The New York Times

There is the spiritual component of survival for Anna who frequently awakens to a “feeling similar to a dream of falling, except the thing that jolts her is a glowing ball of light the size of a playground ball speeding toward her face.”

When Amber Escudero-Kontostathis, 28, drifts into a light sleep, she is frequently awakened by a feeling similar to a dream of falling, except the thing that jolts her is a glowing ball of light the size of a playground ball speeding toward her face.

And of course, Anna struggles with the mental anguish that comes from the miracle of surviving something that something that kills approximately 43 people a year.

Amber died on her birthday and was brought back — twice.

“I am not really comfortable being the one,[who survived]but it’s the hand I was dealt, and I am grateful for it, and I am going to make sure I do not let those three people down. I carry them with me in thought and in action every day.”-Amber Escudero-Kontostathis — NY TIMES

Amber’s Lesson for All of Us

Shortly after the August 4th deadly lightening strike, I was picking my son up from school. Thunder crackled and boomed around us as he got in the car, and bolts of lightening kept us company on the drive home.

We drove by a teenaged boy sitting with an umbrella. There were cars behind us. I couldn’t stop. He was sitting under a tree.

“That boy needs to get somewhere inside.” I said.

“Why? He’s protected from the tree,” my son said.

And there it was: a different kind of lightening, for sure. But striking (for me) all the same. I’d assumed my son knew that trees were a fantastic conductor of electricity. After all, he is in his second year of high school and taking rigorous STEM courses. Of course he would know that a tree was the worst place to go for shelter during a thunderstorm.

The Danger of Assumptions

Amber, James, Donna, and Brooks all assumed — like my son that heading under a tree during a thunderstorm brought protection.

It made me wonder: what other things do I assume my son knows?

My son now knows that heading under a tree during a lightening storm is the worst place to go. We talked about the roots of the tree offering a fast conductor for an electrical storm. 

Indoors are the safest places. Cars are safe as well. It’s the metal doors and roof that protect us — not the rubber tires.

The odds of getting struck by lightning in the U.S. in any year is 1 in 700,000. It’s far from common. And maybe that’s why my son made the same assumption Amber, James, Donna, and Brooks did. Maybe that’s why I assumed my son knew how to stay safe during a lightning storm.

Regardless, it makes me wonder: 

  • What other assumptions do I walk around with? 
  • What lessons do I want to impart to my son instead of assuming he already knows them?
  • What assumptions do I walk around with that need to be addressed?

A heartfelt prayer of peace to the August 4th victims of the Washington D.C. lightening strike — both here and on the Other Side.

The Parent Trust

Some new insight on raising resilient kids…

We all know helicopter parenting is a “no-no.” The idea of micromanaging our children enables an unhealthy tendency for our one day grown kids to depend on their parents or other adults to solve their problems. No doubt, helicopter parenting is a behavioral pattern that fosters co-dependency at best, inhibiting self-reliance and a strong sense of autonomy needed to thrive in this world.

            Yet there’s a more subtle, more insidious variety of helicopter parenting that many of us (myself included) are demonstrating with our kids that needs to, at the very least, be curbed: imposing our thoughts on a subject without giving our children a chance to consider, form and articulate their own thoughts.

            So how do we curb those thoughts and opinions we have? We bite our figurative and literal tongues. We listen. We listen more without reacting. We ask questions and listen some more. We wait. We trust.

            A dear friend of mine who has spent a lifetime mentoring kids recently explained the beauty of the biting-one’s-tongue process: “When you ask questions that make a child think and listen, really listen, you are setting the foundation for true cognitive muscles.” 

            I witnessed the magic of his insight moments later, when my older son talked with him for over an hour. Normally, he’s on the phone for no more than 10-15 minutes with an adult. Curious, I asked him what caused him to talk for so long. His response spoke volumes:

            “He’s easy to talk to. He asks good questions and then really listens.”

            The mentor and dear friend is the talented author, Steve Bernstein (Stories from the Stoop).  I am happy to report that implanting his sage advice has created a subtle yet powerful shift in the relationship between my sons and me. When I approach a conversation from a place of trust in them, in a genuine desire to hear what they think and how they perceive someone or something—without judgement from me, their faith in themselves and in our relationship strengthens. 

            While there are some clear black and white “rules” in this life that we need to impart by word and deed (i.e., Look both ways before you cross the street; floss your teeth daily), the more nebulous, opinion-based questions to life offer an opportunity for open dialogue founded in both mutual and self-respect. Trust is an invaluable gift we can impart to our children when we actively listen to their words without reacting, offering them a safe space to return to again and again. The gift only grows with time, instilling a grounded sense of faith in their intuition and judgement and demonstrating what a healthy relationship founded in trust looks like.

Our children are hungry to know that they matter, that their thoughts matter. When they feel heard, their self-love ignites. And we all know: Self-love is the foundation for success in any life endeavor.