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.

The Pricey Parenting Dish

Each time we give into the short-term, “It’s just easier” mindset, we may be paying a greater price in the long run.

As a mother, I strive to find balance on that delicate tightrope of demonstrating loving compassion and “tough love.” I’m there for my kids, but I’m also not a doormat, challenging them to take responsibility, yet not “Tiger Mothering”( Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and author of the 2011 Memoir,  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.)

But the other day, a friend of mine said something that resonated with me, making me realize that my so-called “tough love” could use a good more muscle. Here’s what she shared:

“*Brent is 20 years old. Everything is done for him. We’re lucky enough to afford a housekeeper, and I do everything else domestic-wise. So today I thought, ‘It’ll be good for him to do something other than learn virtually at home. I’ll ask him to take out the trash.’ But guess what? He couldn’t even do that. He didn’t know what to do with wrapping the trash up. I had to literally show him how to tie the bag. He watched me do it and said it will still confusing. The light dawned on him when I told him it was like tying shoes.”

Brent is a bright young man who maintains excellent grades at a respected university. He is witty, respectful and kind. His SAT score and GPA opened several academic doors at prestigious colleges. And yet, tying a trash bag was a genuine conundrum for our scholar.

I recall sitting at my son’s martial arts class when he was in the third grade. A mom sat beside me as we watched our kids through the clear class that separated us from our pre-pubescent ninjas-in-training. That day, her son had forgotten the required belt for class; mine had left the required black pants. Their lack of preparation for class immediately bonded us.

“Honestly, I try. I try to let him fail, but it’s just easier if I do it all. I don’t have the patience. I work at all day at my firm. I’m tired by the time I get home. If I want something done, I do it myself.”

That was 9 years ago. Today, both of our sweet ninja warriors are young men, a little over 6 months away from graduating high school. They drive cars, they shave, they are excelling in their Advanced Placement courses.

And yet…I think back to that moment in the martial arts class and wonder if I often took the easier road with the short-term benefits. I work full time and still find it “easier” to cook, clean, bake, wash, dry and fold for my teenagers. 

I’m trying to change my ways, focusing on the long term gain these days. There’s still time before the older one heads to college, still time before the younger one enters high school.

I’m a work in progress: yesterday, I gave my sons eggs, sliced cantaloupe and a warm tortilla purposely on the side just to see what they would do without a fork. That’s right, a full plate of food with eggs needing to go in that tortilla but no fork nearby. They needed to actually get up from the table to get their respective forks.

They ate with their hands…

But there IS progress: 

Both have learned to soak bowls that once contained oatmeal and glasses that once held smoothies.

One regularly “squeegies” the shower after use.

Both know to empty their trash cans on Sunday afternoons.

Progress! Both know how to cook basic things now.

Work-in-progress: I’ll leave folded clean laundry outside their door; they merely walk around it like a benign obstacle course.

I prefer the “pain” of taking time out to teach them these basic life responsibilities/skills rather than the long-term suffering waiting for a potential life partner/spouse.

Just some food for thought to all parents out there. We owe our kids a domestic education—for themselves and their future family.

Food for Parents and Kids of All Ages

During this pandemic, while doing our part to stay home and flatten the curve, I stumbled upon this poem my son had written at nine years of age. The genius of this assignment is its simplicity, it’s ability to extract one’s perceptions and personality preferences through present tense verbs: I see, I cry, I dream.

While many of us are still homebound, I encourage you to nourish yourself and your family members with this poetry “workout” of sorts.  We have all seen the GIF pictures flooding social media now of people going into their respective fridges every ten minutes, irrationally hoping to find something new to eat. 

But more often than not, we are hungry for connection and understanding—particularly during this unchartered world of COVID-19. Why not try to feed yourself and your loved ones by fostering that connection and understanding via poetry?

Here’s what I’ve created:

I am apart but never alone.

I wonder if our new normal will ever feel normal.

I hear the news in the background like a garbage compactor that never shuts down.

I see hope in the angels on the frontlines fighting to save humanity every day.

I want the pandemic to unite, not divide us

I pretend I can go to my mailbox without fear

I feel for the planet

I worry about what comes next

I cry for humankind

I understand my parents more each decade

I dream about sitting in a restaurant with family and friends

But the most important thing I do is see each day as a new opportunity

                       My Son’s Poem in 3rd Grade