Misery, Mistakes, and Missteps
Why protecting your kids from everything isn’t the right move
Parenting is confusing, frustrating, and exhausting. One of the things I found the most confusing as my kids got older is this: my job as a parent is to protect them, right? If my kid messes up or gets hurt, isn’t it my fault for not teaching/warning/protecting them better? Isn’t it my responsibility to be sure they don’t have to go through the things I went through? But then how do they learn anything themselves? How do they learn to cope or problem-solve if I’m doing it for them all the time?
Rookie Mom Thinking
I made a ton of mistakes while growing up — mistakes that took me years and, in some cases, decades to recover from. But I wasn’t raised with a lot of supervision. I was pretty sure things would have been different if my parents had parented properly.
We’re all expert parents until we have children.
Once I had my own kids, I instinctively set up a safety bubble. I thought if I had enough rules and emergency procedure manuals, I’d be prepared for anything. The fallout shelters from the seventies and eighties had nothing on my disaster preparation. I came up with 20 different ways any given situation could become a catastrophe, and I had plans for dealing with each one.
As they got to be school age and older, I began to think there was a purpose to my own screw-ups. The clouds parted, and the sun beamed down on this idea: I would be able to use what I learned to guide and protect my kids. I made the mistakes so that they didn’t have to. I suffered so they wouldn’t.
I was wrong.
Oh my god, I was so, so wrong!
Rookie Mom Planning
Obviously, it’s our job to protect our kids when they are little. To insist on seatbelts and helmets. To serve them vegetables and make sure they brush their teeth. To limit screen time and teach them about stranger danger. Protecting little ones is a lot of work, but I really thought it was just an opening act.
The real action would begin when they turned into teenagers.
I imagined dusting off all my mistakes and regaling them with stories of my many catastrophes and narrowly averted disasters. To avoid the pits I’d fallen into, I convinced myself my kids would listen, learn, and even take notes.
If I could not serve as an example, I would serve as a warning.
I was sure I knew enough about the ugliness in the world to be able to recognize it and shield my kids from it. In some sort of martial arts fighting stance, I would stand in front of them, scanning for danger. I would be between them and the world.
And I would throat punch anything that dared to hurt them
My plan was simple: they would walk (mostly) unscathed through life. I would run ahead and clear dangers, point out traps and ditches in their way. I’d hold an umbrella over them, too. You never know.
The execution was flawless. I told them my stories as they got older. They heard the warnings, and they knew how difficult it was to bounce back from everything I messed up. They seemed to listen…but no one took notes.
“Choose your friends carefully- whatever your friends are doing is normalized in your mind.”
“You have addiction all over both sides of your family tree- don’t experiment with drugs and alcohol. It’s not worth the risk.”
“Your grades reflect only how much you studied, not how smart you are. So, if your grades are poor, it means you need to put more time in.”
“Don’t get serious about your boyfriend/girlfriend. You’re too young, you need to focus on school, and you might go to different colleges.”
“Don’t blow off the ACT/SATs — they aren’t just about getting into college. They determine placement in English and Math classes and may even have scholarship implications.”
And on and on. You get the picture.
I was so grateful for everything I’d been through up to this point. I thought it gave me insight and wisdom about how to keep them safe and sound. I was firing pearls at them from both hips through wisdom guns.
And yet they got hurt, and they messed up.
What was the Point?
I couldn’t protect them from bullies or fights with friends. I couldn’t shield them from classmates committing suicide or my own tumultuous divorce. I couldn’t shelter them from racism, losing beloved pets, or deaths in the family.
They had stupid friends, made poor choices, failed tests, drank too much, and ate junk food. They were quite shitty sometimes. But they also had good friends, made good choices, aced classes, ate veggies, and were wonderfully kind and sweet.
In short, they were normal teenagers making normal mistakes.
They were finding their way through a life full of ups and downs. And… they were fine. They were doing exactly what teenagers do. Trying on identities, figuring out who they were. Being dumbasses a lot of the time and showing incredible insight other times.
I, meanwhile, was devastated. Suddenly, everything I had gone through, all of my mistakes, everything I had experienced in life, felt pointless. I learned so many things the hard way, and it benefitted no one. What was the purpose of everything I had learned if I couldn’t pass it on to my kids?? Every poor choice my kids made was evidence of my failure to teach them. Every hurt they suffered was evidence of my failure to protect them.
I went around and around trying to figure this out. Once they could drive and get their own dinner, what was my purpose? What was I as a parent if I couldn’t save them some missteps and some heartache?
The Point (I found it!)
Actually, the point found me. In the form of my kids, of course.
I may have been useless when it came to preventing my kids from making mistakes. I couldn’t protect them from all of life’s heartaches, either. But it turns out I was pretty good at helping them figure out ways to work through any trouble they found themselves in. Plus, I had two excellent shoulders to cry on.
All kids everywhere are going to screw up. It doesn’t matter how much a kid is loved, taught, or protected. They are going to mess up. Because they can’t learn what it is to live their own lives without screwing up once in a while. I could no more have taught my 1-year-old to walk without ever falling than I could teach a teen to be an adult without royally screwing the pooch sometimes.
I took myself and my need to have my past mistakes be meaningful out of the equation. I realized learning how to deal with pain and the consequences of bad decisions are necessary rites of passage into adulthood. They are not parenting fails. I needed to stop taking their development so personally.
Then I could take a breath and focus on my changing role as their mom.
Practiced Mom Thinking
I was no longer the helmet and seat belt police; now, I was a consultant. Broken hearts, poor grades, spiritual crises, makeup application, money or time management, career choices, I consulted them all. My extensive background in mistake-making and life repair came in handy and, once in a while, I had something useful to offer.
It was important my kids felt safe enough to bring their mistakes to me before they spiraled into something too big to handle. I wanted to be admitted to their lives voluntarily — not because the authorities were called. I wanted them to think of me if they needed comfort or guidance.
To do that, I needed to stop focusing on the mistakes themselves. While a brief review of the events leading up to a screw-up is useful, it was more important to focus on fixes. To focus on the next steps. When I did that, I earned trust. They knew they could rely on me to problem-solve with them.
That was where I found those teaching moments.
Reality Still Bites, but with Less Teeth
I didn’t make their problems go away. I sat with them, and we talked through possible solutions. We made plans, lists of things to do, and defined wanted outcomes. They learned they were capable of working their way through any difficulty life threw at them. They learned there is always something they can do to make their situation better.
If the problem was a broken heart or hurt feelings, we talked through that as well. We discussed apologies, forgiveness, empathy, and responsibility. Sometimes the situation just called for a sad movie, a good cry, and some chocolate ice cream.
Through all this, I saw my teens weren’t irresponsible or foolish. They were becoming adults. These conversations gave me a window into their intelligent heads and beautiful hearts. I saw them work through their grief and become resilient and compassionate people.
I grew to admire them greatly.
Practiced Mom Philosophy
It’s not just kids that make mistakes (see Rookie Mom Section). We are all constantly making blunders and errors. I was so focused on protecting my kids that I never considered what would happen if I’d succeeded.
Our growth happens when we deal with pain and disappointment, and our character is set by how we fix our mistakes and redirect our lives. Generally, the kindest, most compassionate, and resilient people I know are those who have been through some shit. They are often the most interesting too. The strongest people are the ones who have been tried and tested the most. They are comfortable with themselves and know what they are capable of handling.
If my rookie mom plan had been successful, my kids would have been cheated out of their own development. They wouldn’t have built their own strength and skills. They wouldn’t have known their own power.
Plus, what would happen when I die? If I had always been there to clear the path for them and then suddenly, I was gone — they’d be at a loss. They’d have turned into the adults that annoy everyone because they can’t manage their own lives.
My own experiences growing up were not so I could protect my kids from every hurt or mistake. Those things happened, and I learned from them. They helped me to become compassionate and understand when others are hurting. I learned to think through a problem, reduce it into parts, and figure out a way forward. I learned to live a beautiful life despite a sometimes-ugly world. I learned to find satisfaction and joy in an imperfect life.
That was the lesson I needed to pass on to my kids. The message should never have been “don’t make mistakes” or “I will protect you from everything.” Neither of those things is possible.
The message should have been: You will get hurt. You will survive it, and it will make you strong, loving, and compassionate. You will make mistakes. You will survive them, and they will make you humble, wise, and understanding. You are intelligent, powerful, and capable. You can work your way through anything life throws at you.
And I will be there if you need me.