In the day-to-day of parenting, it can be excruciating to keep my mouth shut at times. Since I clearly know what is best, it seems like it is my duty to share that with my lovely children. If I don’t tell them what to do and how to do it, how will they learn?
When they were very young, my hawk-like vigilance seemed absolutely necessary; it appeared to be a sign of good parenting. I decided what they should eat and how much. If they refused my choices, I amped up my efforts and tried cajoling, encouraging and occasionally bribing. At some point, likely when they had a large enough vocabulary and a sense of how the world worked, I started to question my strategy. If I served healthy food and they declined to eat it, who actually had the problem? I started to see that if I tied my need to be seen as a great mom, to what they ate or wore or said or did, I was always going to fall short.
I took a vow to be quiet. If they didn’t like what I made for dinner (which was always made with their preferences in mind), I shrugged. I wasn’t going to be hungry.
This strategy worked well for quite a few years. The fears of not being good enough rose up once again when I realized they were going to be in high school, the precursor to college and adult life. What if my hands-off approach meant they wouldn’t pass their classes or take the ‘right’ ones, or that they might fail at sports and not get a coveted scholarship? What if they make bad choices without my wise guidance?
Perhaps you already know where this is going. My son failed pre-calculus, refused to take Advanced Placement courses and eschewed even the mention of sports. I stopped checking his grades and GPA— they tended to make me want to cajole, encourage or bribe him again.
It got harder to keep quiet because the stakes got higher. Nothing happened when they did not eat the broccoli on their plate. Allowing my son to fail classes was much more difficult. Good thing I had been practicing all those years. “Guess you will have to take pre-calc again,” I shrugged. He just nodded.
Yes, he passed it the second time. No, he didn’t get an A. Did retaking the class make him try harder? Not really. He was still making choices and I was still keeping quiet.
Apparently my kids possess the ability to learn from their mistakes. That is, if I let them make mistakes.
Perhaps it is the term ‘mistakes’ that impedes us. What if we just called it growing up? My son is taking calculus this year and he is taking the Advanced Placement class. He has learned that he actually does have the skills to do the work, and he has learned that he likes the AP classes. He recently told me he wishes he had taken more AP classes during high school. Not because they count towards college or competition with his peers but because he tends to like the teachers and students in them; it’s his tribe. If I had made my son take them during high school, he may have come to the same conclusion or he may have just opposed the whole thing because I made him. Either way, he would not have had the opportunity to learn from his own choices, and I wouldn’t have learned how to keep quiet.