Giving children the room to fail

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Giving children the room to fail

Despite optimum sunlight, water and nutrients, fruit trees planted in the Arizona desert biosphere didn’t bear fruit. Scientists later learned it was because there was no wind; there wasn’t resistance to strengthen its limbs. This is similar to when parents restrict children’s freedom and then expect them to know what to do once they turn 18.

“It’s why there’s so much struggle when they get to college. We haven’t been structurally and strategically expanding the space kids have control over as they were growing up,” explained best-selling author Hal Runkel at the 2021 Positive Parenting Summit online.

Runkel is also a registered conflict mediator and speaker who advocates for parenting with the end in mind. In his practice as a licensed marriage and family therapist, instead of values-driven parenting, he mostly sees the anxiety-driven variety that makes parents emotionally reactive hulks who threaten, “Don’t make me angry!”

Plot twist: parenting is not about kids, it’s about parents. “Kids will act their age. The challenge is how old are you going to act? It’s your job to manage that anxiety; otherwise, you can’t lead. Your number one job is not to make your kids feel safe; it’s to make them feel strong. And you can’t get strong without risking getting hurt,” he said.

A ship is safest in the harbor, but that’s not why we build ships. Runkel said he would rather be late for work than scream kids into submission. He considers neglecting something you want most for something you want now a parenting fail.

For instance, you want a relationship with your children as they become teens and adults, for them to see you as a mentor. But what you want right now is for them to shut up and do as they’re told. Your voice and authority can “get things done,” but it will cost you the relationship you want the most.

“If all I’ve done is make them scared of me because I wanted them to behave, what happens when they’re no longer scared of me? They’re not going to listen to me. If they’re afraid of me, they won’t talk to me,” said Runkel.

Say you have a teen who lies repeatedly. While your natural reaction is to get mad, it does not help Pinocchio focus on his behavior. We don’t want him to think about us; we want him to think about him.

Taking responsibility

Runkel noted that we call our child’s messy room theirs, but we tell them to keep it how we want it (clean, no food, etc.). As for homework, whose is it? He wondered why parents ask or remind their kids if it’s done, because each time we take responsibility for another, we take responsibility for them. Then when our kids say, “Well, you didn’t tell me to do it,” we’re pissed.

He sees this happen all the time in his practice. Families go on holiday and expect kids to wake up ready for school. “Start them on a bedtime routine at least a week and a half before school starts. That’s your responsibility to them. Make sure they have their school supplies to do their homework,” said Runkel.

But let them feel the dread of having to do their homework. If you’re having dinner out, they can’t do it there, so the only time to get it done is now. But if they argue that they don’t want to do it, allow it. Otherwise, it’s like giving them money and telling them what to buy.

It doesn’t mean absolute neglect. Runkel said that having an allowance gives children a sense of agency and power, with lessons to learn. Agree that up to a certain amount, they don’t need your permission on what to buy. Beyond that, recognize that it’s still their money, so it’s still their decision, but that they consult you about it and wait 24 hours. If he uses his Steam wallet on a game that turns out to be lame, he will already regret it. An “I told you so” from his folks isn’t necessary; he’s already learned his lesson.

Runkel added that consequences don’t change children’s behavior; you will still be taking responsibility for them if you have that ‘magic bullet consequence mindset.’ “So you take away their toy or privilege till they say, ‘Fine, I don’t care.’ And then what? They know we’re trying to control them and don’t want to give us the satisfaction,” he said.

Natural consequences

We need to be able to communicate that we love our children but that we will not save them from the natural consequences of their choices. Our job is not to protect them from the world but to prepare them for it.

Kuya finding it irresistible to annoy bunso? Remind him, “What do you think will happen after that?” Help him understand that what he does next is not up to you, it’s up to him.

Our words must align with our attitude, as our tone is our message. Runkel stressed that we have to say what we mean, mean what we say and follow through, calmly. Be consistent in every situation, as giving in is tantamount to a broken promise.

Consequences can affect others, too; it’s part of living in a society. Point out to your kid that when she chose not to get ready on time, everyone was late. People can get upset with her. Let her know that her being late made people feel unimportant.

Are you still waking up your teen for school? Teach them to set an alarm. Summit host Sumitha Bhandarkar challenged the audience to think of two things that we do for our kids that they should be doing for themselves, and to stop doing it. She said that if it’s their responsibility to feed the dog but when they don’t, you do it instead, we are teaching them not to believe anything we say and it’s lying to them about the way the world works. —Contributed INQ

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