Holly T. Meginniss, MSW, LSWAIC
I spend a lot of time working with families, particularly with teens and their families, on the need for teens to experience the natural consequences of their choices, good and bad, as well as taking responsibility for mistakes. I work hard to assure my families that I do empathize with them how difficult it is to see your child struggle. As I say, it is easy for me to say, but not always easily done.
But the truth is I have been exceptionally lucky to have two children who have been able to learn lessons with a minimum of traumatic consequences; my daughter is now an adult who works in a job of considerable responsibility, and recently married a wonderful young man whom she has dated for several years. My son is about to start his final year of high school, and is exceptionally bright. He has also learned a strong work ethic, and with the challenge of ADHD has understood the importance of taking his medication daily, and developed habits to manage his symptoms that allow him to be successful at all his endeavors.
Recently my son was given the opportunity to do some photography work at an event for kids; to be able to tell the story well, my son was part of the staff that stayed with the campers for the entire event. Near the end of the event my son realized that during the travelling around to different activities in the area he had lost an integral piece of equipment needed to complete one of the assignments, as it needed to be done for the final day of the camp. He contacted his sister, who was not sure how to handle the situation, and sought advice from me. Of course, this all happened late in the evening, and it was going to be about 2 hours of running around for myself and my daughter.
I became frustrated with my son, and expressed this on the phone. One of the dirty little secrets of my profession is that sometimes emotions get the better of us and we make mistakes with our own children. This did not help the situation, as my son was plenty hard on himself. As my daughter and I were harping and getting ready to make the trip, an unexpected voice of reason came forward—my son-in-law. He gently reminded us that he too struggles with ADHD, and has made mistakes in his job that he has had to solve; if it were him, his wife would have had him solve the problem.
I realized that he was right; as excruciating as it was, I called my son back and told him we were not coming. I gave him suggestions on how to calm down, and we formulated a strategy to let the other staff members know what was happening, and see if they could help him brainstorm ideas how to solve the problem. I also assured him that if worse came to worse, his brother-in-law would be there early in the morning as planned and would bring another computer. I went to bed knowing I did the right thing, but feeling like the meanest Mommy in the entire world.
When parenting children, it can be so hard to be the voice of reason, and to not save them from their mistakes. Yet if we want to be their first and best teachers, we have no choice. I often refer to this as “controlled failure”; when children have opportunities to struggle and problem solve when the consequences are not catastrophic to strengthen those “muscles”, they are able to take the reins when the problems arise on their own with confidence. It also gives children the opportunity to feel the success of problem solving, and the positive consequences of taking responsibility for making mistakes. In that we help our kids gain the most valuable gift of all, wisdom.
My son did practice problem solving, and not only did his project get rave reviews, he also got the piece of equipment back. He came home from the trip tired but satisfied with his work. He also said that he learned his lesson, and will make sure he can’t get stuck again in this situation.