The Freedom to Make Mistakes

My oldest son Marco (6) gets yelled at a lot more than other kids in our neighborhood. I should know – I’m the principal yeller. He also makes more big mistakes than these other kids.

It’s not that he’s more mistake-prone. Instead, my wife and I give him ample opportunity to make mistakes. In fact, I’d say that Marco has more freedom than any kid around his age.

These days, parents who see kids with the freedom Marco has assume that the parents are neglecting their duties. This is not true for my wife and me. We’re very engaged parents, but we don’t believe that it’s good for our kids to be controlled by us all the time.

So, we give Marco a lot of freedom, but we monitor how he deals with that freedom rather closely. In other words, we’re very attentive, but from a distance. We give him ample opportunity to make mistakes. We often have to yell to get Marco to stop doing something that’s very wrong or dangerous, but after that, we try to swoop in to pull him aside and teach him a lesson.

This approach can be quite nerve-racking, but it has great rewards. He’s becoming a very self-reliant young man.

I’ll give a couple of examples:

  1. riding bikes: Marco and I have been riding bikes together a lot for a few years. When he was four and he was on training wheels, we started riding on streets together. I went crazy trying to teach him to stay on the right side of the road, to stop when I said, and to go when I said. Now, he can do all this for himself without a word from me.

    Now that he’s six, we ride him to his school every day. I let him ride ahead and cross residential intersections. I’ve often had to yell to make sure he looks both ways before crossing, but he’s getting better. He also has a lot to learn about the protocol of crossing an intersection when there are many cars present.

    Last week, he almost passed a car on the right that was making a right turn, and I yelled to get him to stop. I scrambled up to him and explained to him how to handle right of way in that situation and what turn signals mean. The other kids who were there on bicycles with their parents hovering over them were quite taken aback. Marco had made a pretty big mistake, and now his father was talking to him very sternly. However, a couple of days later, he got into a similar situation and he handled it much better. I’m sure the other kids riding with their parents on that day didn’t learn nearly as much as Marco did.

  2. roaming the neighborhood: One day last week, Marco was playing with an older neighbor boy in our yard. At one point, our nanny looked for them and couldn’t find them in any of the usual nearby places Marco likes to hang out (his normal range extends to close neighbors’ yards). She panicked and called me. I was working, so I called the boy’s mom. She went to look for them and found them in a hangout place of her son many blocks away from our house. The boy had persuaded Marco to go with him to a place he is allowed to go to, even though Marco knows he isn’t allowed to leave the small area around our house. When I got home that evening, Marco got a very stern tongue-lashing from me. Then, we had a conversation about what the proper rules for his roaming should be (we adjusted them to give him a bit more freedom) and why we have rules for roaming at all. It was quite a “teachable moment.”

I have many more examples. The bottom line is that Marco is out there every day making mistakes, and with my wife’s and my help, he’s learning from them. It can be a pretty scary, stressful way to raise a kid, but he hasn’t come close to getting seriously hurt, and he’s grown up a lot. We’re quite happy with the results so far.

Bookmark the permalink of this post.

Comments are closed.