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Five Mistakes Every Kid Should be Allowed to Make

Five Mistakes Every Kid Should be Allowed to Make

By Chris Jordan

As parents our first inclination is to rush in and save our children when something goes wrong in their lives, or to shield them and prevent whatever the “bad” thing is from happening in the first place. Sadly, we all learn better through making our own mistakes.  Sometimes watching the inevitable really does hurt us as parents more than it hurts them.

1) Choosing the wrong friends

At some point your child is going to become friends with someone that you do not like. Now I am not talking about allowing your child to be friends with a convicted felon, no I mean allowing your child to reach their own decisions regarding the friendship. It’s okay to subtly point out things, but remember if you ban the friendship outright it will make it all the more alluring.

My frienemy was named Elizabeth. Fact about Elizabeth, today, August 25th, is her birthday. If you are reading Happy Birthday, Elizabeth. Also, you were a bitch! Glad I got that off my chest thirty years later.

Elizabeth would do things like invite me over to her house and then cancel at the last minute because she decided to have a different friend over. She would steal things from my house and when I would confront her about it she would make up some ridiculous lie. She would be my best friend one day and then the next completely exclude me. My mother constantly told me that I shouldn’t be her friend and pointed out all of her faults. But for some reason it just made me want to be friends with her even more. I mean, how dare my mother presume to know what is best for me. Sure, I was at an age where my mother still provided clothing, food, shelter, but my preteen self just wanted her to leave me alone.  She just didn’t understand me.

The thing was that when Elizabeth was your friend, she was so much fun. She had the exciting ideas– that usually ended up with me getting into trouble. She would say the things to people that you always wished you could say, but your common sense and manners prevented you from doing. I can’t pinpoint the exact day my friendship with her ended, but I do know I eventually realized she wasn’t a friend at all. However, that day would have come a lot sooner had my mother not been waiting there in the wings to say, “I told you so.”

The lesson I learned from my relationship with Elizabeth is one that I pass on to my children. If someone is talking about other friends behind their backs and saying not so nice things about them, you can be rest assured that when you aren’t around, the same thing is happening.

Of course, they have all had to learn this themselves.

2) Not doing their homework assignments

I will admit that this one is difficult for me. I used to nag and nag and nag my kids to do their homework. But you know what I discovered? The more I nagged, the more I HAD to nag. It’s like the nagging became the foreplay of the homework experience.

I learned to step away. I ask about homework. I ask if they need any help. But then my job is done. If they choose not to do their homework or study for their test, they are the ones who deal with the consequences.

The most difficult part about this one? Worrying about what the teachers think of me if my child does poorly. But it isn’t about me, it is about them developing good study habits and discipline that will carry them through the rest of their life.  I just pray they will learn this lesson before they flunk out of high school.

3) Disappointing someone they care about

I think the younger the better this one is learned. That your actions carry consequences. That you need to think of other people aside from yourself. If someone is important to you, then you make them a priority. I know so many adults who still have not learned this, probably because their own parents saved them or shielded them from the disappointments of others.

Last year I reminded my older children to call their grandmother on her birthday. They are old enough to have their own cell phones. They certainly never forget to call their friends or to call me to chauffeur them around town. One of them kept saying that he would do it later. Well, later never came. I could have stepped in, dialed the phone and handed it to him, but what lesson would he have learned.

When I confronted this child the following day, he had a bevy of excuses. I reminded him that his grandmother is 85 years old. She doesn’t have that many birthdays left. I may have thrown in some phrases like inconsiderate and think of other people sometimes. And some other choice things that probably better belong on a list of mistakes every parent should be allowed to make.

He called. He apologized. But most importantly, he learned his lesson. His future wife will thank me one day.

4) Wearing cringe worthy clothing and hairstyles

Every time I consider telling one of my children my opinion of these things I think back to my own pre-teen and teenage years. Seventh grade was the year I decided to feather my hair. Every day I would use my curling iron to try and force my hair into submission. Then I would spray it stiff with hairspray. I’m not even sure I made it out the door to the bus stop before it drooped into a flat sticky mess. But, no one can ever say I was a quitter, I kept up that hairdo for almost an entire year.

Eighth grade was the year of the wispy bangs and more curling iron abuse. Also I wore lots of black concert shirts for bands I thought were cool, but i didn’t necessarily listen to or even like. Thankfully I had to wear a uniform to school so this fashion choice was confined to weekends.

Ninth grade I decided I wanted to look like some kind of half-assed punk rocker. I shaved the underneath part of my bob haircut and did this odd spiked thing with my bangs. I also pierced my own ear multiple times and took to wearing my crucifix from one of those holes.

Tenth grade saw me fully embracing the neon clothing, over-sized shirts that hung off my shoulder, and leggings. I scrunched my socks down into my Capezios. In fact, I seem to recall layering my socks. My memory is a little fuzzy. I probably have blocked it out, because who in their right mind wants to make their ankles appear twice as large and dwarf your feet.

Those things are just the tip of the iceberg, a large unfortunate iceberg. So really, how can I complain about any sort of choices my kids make, whether it is my 9yr old drawing tattoos on himself with permanent markers or my teenagers wearing shorts so long and baggy they look like they have no legs.

In the grand scheme of life, these things don’t really matter. Just make sure you take lots of photos. They will be useful later.

5) Quitting something they will regret later

Who stopped taking some sort of lesson as a child and has regretted it ever since? Raise your hand.

It just gives your kid a hobby to take up again in adulthood. I am looking into buying a piano. You know, for the “kids.”

How about you? What mistakes do you think every kid should be allowed to make. I’m sure you have some opinions.

This post was inspired by Real Simple’s “The five mistakes everyone should make” article in its September 2010 issue.

Chris Jordan
About the Author

Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children. Yes, the...

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.
Yes, they are all hers.
No she’s not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.
Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That’s why her youngest is almost 6.
Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

If you would like to submit a question for Chris to answer publicly, please do so to adviceforparentsoftweens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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  • Heidi

    August 25, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Also, let your kids date that one person who’s no good. Now, I’m not saying let them date someone who’s WAY too old for them, or does drugs or drinks. Let them date the person who never calls, doesn’t keep dates, and is just generally a jerk. They’ll soon wise up and dump the chump and (hopefully) learn a lesson. When the break-up occurs, you’ll be there with your shoulder to cry on, a box of Kleenex and the story of the jerk YOU dated in school and what you learded.

    ALSO: when your kids have an allowance or a part time job, let them learn about money the hard way. For example, when I had my very FIRST paycheck, I went right out and spent it. Then I realized I can’t eat lunch out at the Tastee Freeze with my friends. (Which trust me, was a BIG DEAL.) I soon learned what budgeting means. Don’t nag them into saving, they’ll get the point soon enough.

  • Maggie

    August 25, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    I have 2 correlates: Let them drop friends that you like. It usually turns out there is a good reason for the friendship to end that you are not privy to.

    Let them do their homework in the method that works for them, not how you would go about doing it.

  • Jennifer

    August 26, 2010 at 7:20 am

    A couple of these things I hadn’t even thought about before. The homework one must be hard. But I spent most of this summer watching my sister-in-law nap her daughter to to her summer assignments and the nagging did seem like the the required step before any work got done (or didn’t even then). Clearly, it didn’t help at all and just made us all miserable.

  • Nikki

    August 26, 2010 at 8:16 am

    All of these are great. I especially love the 1st commenter – letting them date the ‘wrong’ person.

    Went to our school’s open house the other night and found out that students will be doing all projects in class this year b/c ‘we know YOU can make a poster.’ It was always VERY clear last year that our daughter had not had parental help in making her projects for class. It will be interesting to see what comes from the students this year who had parents doing their projects for them last year.

  • Melani

    August 26, 2010 at 8:36 am

    My husband and I just had a long ‘discussion’ about our son wanting to quit a sport.  He didn’t want to let him quit because he always regretted quitting.  I said it’s not about us…we should explain the consequences and then let him decide for himself.  We finally agreed to disagree but did let our son do the choosing himself.  (He chose not to quit when he discovered it would mess up the rest of his school schedule so I guess we all got what we wanted.) 

    I’ve got to say, the homework one is a weakness of mine. It just boggles my mind that they would even consider not doing it.  My parents never once asked me about school but I always did it and graduated Valedictorian of my class.  My kids could easily do the same but for some reason schoolwork seems optional to them.  It feels like it should be easier for them to have a parent who cares whether or not they do the work.  I’m aware I need to back off but just b/c I’m aware doesn’t mean I manage to do it. Sigh. 

  • Adventures In Babywearing

    August 26, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I agree with these so much. My parents let me go crazy with ALL of those. (maybe too much) And my husbands’ family was the opposite. Protecting kids from ever having to DEAL with stuff can be pretty screwy for them when they grow up and become an adult. Just saying.


  • Adventures In Babywearing

    August 26, 2010 at 9:52 am

    (To clarify, I should have said husband’s… I only have one husband. Not into that plural marriage thing but do think it might be nice to have a few wives some days.)


  • elz

    August 26, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Agree completely with your list, and the previous commenters. My 5 year old daughter learned about the dangers of being friends with mean girls last year. Every time I saw those girls, I wanted to slap them for how mean they were. Little snots. Hopefully she remembers and learns to choose better friends. If I coudl add one it would be: let them be involved in things you do not understand. My parents let me be involved in dance, our local Jr. Forum (Jr. League), then a debutante, then in a sorority. It wasn’t how they grew up and nobody in my family ever did any of those things. But, those activites were right for me at that time and taught me a number of valuable lessons. For instance, I can teach you how to full curtsy, never underestimate that life skill!

  • liz

    August 26, 2010 at 10:09 am

    You should keep an eye on freecycle for a piano.  We gave away our old, but fine, but needed to be tuned piano on freecycle because no one played it and I wanted it out of the house.  I occasionally see pianos come through on there and they are totally free except you have to go get it.

  • suzie

    August 26, 2010 at 10:22 am

    I’ve lived through most of these.  I bit my tongue until it bled for the first half of my daughter’s 8th grade year, because of a friend I didn’t like.  My husband wanted to forbid her from hanging out with this child, but I cited a relationship much like yours with Elizabeth (only mine was the bad BOYfriend) as how it could backfire.  We let it go, and I ended up with more sympathy for the child than dislike.  

    Homework I’ve been able to step back on – but I am worried now that my oldest is heading to high school.  I thought middle school was a perfect time to let her learn to manage her own deadlines and consequences.  But now that she’s building a transcript that colleges will look at … it may be harder for me to butt out.  I will do my best. 

    Clothing and hairstyle – I always look back on the horror shows I chose, and I blame my mother.  I think “if only SHE had a better sense of style, she could have helped me not to do that.”  But I’m sure you’re right ….  

  • KarinNH

    August 26, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I teach freshmen in college and oh, how I agree with #2! It is much better for them to learn this lesson in elementary school or middle school instead of when you are paying $30K+ per year for them to go to school.

    I can’t tell you how many of them deeply regret their academic habits after their first semester, when it is the first time no one is nagging them to do their work. It takes a long time to work that GPA back up.

  • hennifer

    August 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    This is a great article! These are really some things to think about. My oldest is 9 and I’m terrified I’m missing some important lesson he’ll need later in life.

  • Heather

    August 26, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    I love this article and agree with it all. The point about the clothes cracks me up. After telling my son he should really not wear multiple shades of red in the same outfit, I backed off, smiled and took a picture. My rehearsal dinner slide show is going to be the best one in the history of the world. 

    The homework one is hard. Especially when I go to school and compare my son’s project (no or little help from me) to other projects that were obviously done by a parent. But I told the teacher at the beginning of the year what my philosophy was, and she supports it. 

    The only mistake I would add to the list is the mistake of being unorganized. Can’t find your notebook? Forget your back pack? Didn’t write down what the teacher wanted? Too bad. My son gets 1 freebie a year- where I will bring something to school that he forgot. After that, he is on his own. 

  • HolyMama!

    August 26, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    When my kids forget lunches or homework, they need to KNOW that I will not bring it to school for them. I’ve probably reminded them before we left. I’ve drilled it into them to put their stuff right back into their backpacks instead of leaving it all over their floors. If it still gets left at home, then it’s a learning experience i don’t want to take away. (I’m at home. It would be NO trouble for me to take it. But that’s not the point, right?!)

    And my 4 yr old wears the most RIDICULOUS things. I really don’t care. It’s HIS crazy style. He’s my 4th kid, not my 1st and that helps a lot! 🙂

  • Sue @ Laundry for Six

    August 26, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    I think Elizabeth’s spawn are in my daughter’s 5th grade class. Also, I completely forgot about Capezios and layered socks. Thanks for that walk down Memory Lane.

  • Maggie

    August 26, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    ABSOLUTELY to every one of those! (plus the one about dating the wrong person – spot on, Heidi!)
    My mother recently took apart her deceased mother’s old photo albums in order to make new albums for us three sisters and our cousin. We had a great laugh noticing how, despite our age differences, we each had horrendous pictures from the ages of about 11-14. We’re trying to teach the next generation to learn from our mistakes as they head into their tween years, but I know they won’t 🙂

  • Julie

    August 26, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    Maggie: totally agree about letting them drop friends you like. My mother was always totally mad that I’d dropped a friend she viewed as one of her favorite people. I didn’t have the guts to tell her I’d apparently been hanging out with someone who did meth, smoked, and was promiscuous at age THIRTEEN!

  • catie

    August 27, 2010 at 4:09 am

    The only one I disagree with is number 5. If you don’t let your kids quit, then they learn the valuable lesson that achievements are not always easy but sometimes powering through is worth it.

  • Brigitte

    August 27, 2010 at 5:56 am

    I’m torn on the quitting lessons thing. After all, there is the corollary: how many of us were forced to go to some lessons/sport/activity looong after wanting to quit, thus fostering a lifelong festering resentment and loathing of the whole thing?
    Hee, I have my own bad friend memories. Sadly, I don’t think she ever knew herself what a horrible friend she was, and why eventually I just had to cut her off completely.

  • Sandy

    August 27, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    I’d add one lesson I learned: as early as possible, let them learn a BIG lesson about money. (Early as possible, because the amount of cash involved is so much smaller.) My example: when I was about 7 (in the mid-50s), I received an allowance of 10 cents per week. A nickel had to go into one of those little church envelopes, but the rest was mine to spend or save as I liked. At that time, I usually threw my library books under the bed when I finished and of course, one was WAY overdue: I owed 48 cents! My mother talked to the librarian, and for 10 dreary weeks, I had to take my extra nickel to the library and turn it over to the librarian. I learned about monetary consequences early, before I had a chance to wreck a bicycle or car.

  • meredith

    August 28, 2010 at 5:09 am

    I have a hard time with the letting kids quit something…maybe because I’ve had to prepay the year in advance. I make them stick it out until the end of the session. Then, they can drop-out or try a new activity.

  • Jaymee

    August 30, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    I don’t agree with 2, 4, and 5.

    When I was in high school, my parents never made me do my homework. They did exactly what you are suggesting. Due to this I rarely did my homework, made terrible grades, and now I’m wasting LOTS of extra money taking college courses that I never would have had to take if I’d had strict homework rules growing up. For example, if I hadn’t been allowed to hang out with my friends until my homework was done, I would have been more willing to do it. I think paying great attention to your child’s education is part of being a good parent. Children need to be taught priorities; you can’t just expect a child to choose homework over friends. That’s just ridiculous.

    Chris says: Nowhere did I say that there are not consequences. No where did I say I allow my children to choose hanging out with friends over doing their homework. Bad grades= bad consequences in my house. But it is their choice to make. My kids all earn mostly A’s and they are self motivated. Personally I don’t think you can force anyone to do anything and it sounds to me that if your parents had forced you to do homework you would have done a half-assed job anyway because you were not motivated. Their problem wasn’t in not forcing you, it was in not teaching you the value of hard work and self-motivation.

    Wearing ridiculous clothing is nothing that I personally had any problems with when I was in school. I have always worn normal appropriate clothing and nothing crazy. I think expressing yourself through the use of clothing is fine, but only to a certain extent. Those people you see walking around in pants that have legs wide enough to fit my entire body, all black clothing, or anything along those lines is not acceptable. You should be teaching your child the importance of being a well-respected member of society, not someone who looks like they just came from a gang bang or crack house. Social acceptance, no matter how much you don’t want it to be, is a very important factor in being successful. If there are two equal candidates for a job and one of them dresses in slacks and a tie, while the other dresses in baggy jeans and a wife beater. Who do you think gets the job? The one that is dressed like a respected adult. Why would you NOT want to teach your child this?

    Chris says: We are talking children here. None of them are out looking for jobs. And yes, they wear appropriate clothing for occassions that call for it. BUT, if they were adults who chose to dress that way for an interview I would think they would learn their lesson pretty quick.

    Quitting is a tricky one.
    It really should depend on the reason(s) why the child wants to quit. If it’s something that your kid truly just does not want to do (as long as it’s extracurricular, quitting school is NEVER an option) then by all means, let them make that choice. If your kid just wants to quit because it’s hard, or it’s a lot of work though, well that’s just bad parenting. You can’t go around letting your child think its ok to just quit something every time it gets tough. If I quit everything that I did in my life just because it got hard or just because I decided I didn’t want to put forth the effort anymore, well I’d be a loser. Who wants their kids to grow up to be losers? NOT ME!!!!

    Chris says: Again, I never said anything about quitting SCHOOL. I am talking about the kid who decides after two years of violin lessons that he wants to move on to something else. Or the kid who decided to try out baseball and after one season decides he didn’t like it. To me that is not being a LOSER, it is expanding your horizons and trying things that might be outside of your comfort zone. It is about them using their limited free time to find something they really enjoy. After 5 years of piano lessons I quit. I wish I hadn’t quit for the simple reason that I’d like to be a better player, but do I regret it? No, not really because in its place I took other lessons and filled up the free time with things that continue to make me happy. It definitely did not make me a LOSER.

    That’s why I WILL ALWAYS make my son do his homework. I WILL NEVER allow him to dress inappropriately. He will NOT be a quitter!

    Chris says: I wish you had said how old your son was, because I have learned never to say the word NEVER.

    I hope when my son becomes the CEO of a major company, he never has to fire your child due to you not giving him/her the tools to succeed in life.

    Chris says: I hate to tell you this, but there are no guarantees.

  • nec

    September 2, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Wow… Can I just ask – where the H#ll were you went my kids were younger! My eldest – I nagged to do homework, wouldn’t let him quit anything, blah, blah, blah. My youngest, I allowed him to suffer the consequences of his actions. Where are they now? My eldest is stuck in a rut, has not furthered his education, is not working, is struggling with a few issues. My youngest, is traveling South America, exploring Argentina and teaching english. Is on his way to Europe next and is taking online classes to keep up with furthuring his education.
    Obviously – as Chris mentioned there are no guarantees in life – but I think Chris is right on her points. Love your articles!

  • Cheryl s.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    I love these. I think the homework one is going to be tough for me (My daughter’s only 5, so we haven’t really run into it yet.)
    The others are great! I’ve finally convinced my husband to let my daughter wear what she wants on the weekends. I knew we had turned a corner when the other day she was dressed in a sparkly striped skirt, princess shirt, socks with cherries on them and mary janes and my husband just smiled and told her she looked great!

  • Julia Angel

    September 4, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Great article! I agree with almost all the points but I am not sure about quitting. I wish my parents were more firm when it came to my decision to quit music school because it interfered with the archery practice, only to quit archery because it started interfering with my dance class. The list could go on and on. I think they should have stepped in and limit this whirlwind of my activities and ever changing hobbies and interests. This would certainly teach me some persistence that I lack as an adult. When it comes to homework, I think it should NEVER be an option. This is kids’ work, just like we have the responsibilities to provide for them, clothe, feed, entertain etc. they have this responsibility to do their best at school. I like the relaxed approach to face the consequences later. You might choose not to do your homework but when you get the bad grades get prepared for your punishment coming. We never learn from somebody else’s mistakes. It just doesn’t work this way.

  • Jennifer

    December 14, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    i deeply regret my high school academic habits. It set me up for complete failure my first year of college. After that, I took three years off, worked terrible jobs, barely made rent but that experience inspired me to go back to college and make something of myself. Well, I managed to earn a MS and MS. Not so shabby for a kid who couldn’t pass health! I still regret not applying myself at all.