I had a very insulated, protected life growing up. I’m not exaggerating! For example, my mom would make us unplug all the TVs and fans and stay off the phone (and the toilet) during thunderstorms…and then there was that one time during a tornado warning when she made us all go in the basement wearing rubber boots (to keep us grounded in the event of lightning, of course!).
Looking back, I know that a lot of my parent’s rules came from a place of wanting to keep us safe. My 3 brothers and I had a lot of rules and were constantly getting sent to our rooms for one violation or another. Looking back, I believe that at least 2 of the 3 boys—and maybe even all 3—had undiagnosed ADHD; at any given time, someone was ALWAYS in trouble. As the only girl, I was usually the obedient one.
Until this one day….
It was elementary school; I think it was third grade so I was age 7 or 8. I had to take the bus to and from school and on this day, the bus to go home was really, really late. As my group of fellow bus-riders from my neighborhood stood there for HOURS (okay, probably only minutes, but it sure seemed longer), it seemed clear to us that that bus was not going to come for us. Next thing I knew, one of the older neighbor girls came up to me and said, “I’m walking home. Come with me!” (PS it was 3 miles and a couple of busy highways to cross).
I wish I could say that she twisted my arm or used her best peer pressure line to get me to follow her. But she didn’t. I willingly agreed. But the very second I was across the street from the school, I immediately regretted it. I felt absolutely SICK inside. I knew I shouldn’t be doing this. My gut was screaming, “Go back!”
I wanted so badly to turn around and go back to the bus line in the school yard, but I was too much of a chicken. I didn’t know how to tell her that I changed my mind and, even if I had the guts for that, there’s no way I wanted to face having to explain to all the others still standing there waiting for the bus why I came back. So basically, in that moment, I believed that I had NO OPTION except to keep walking.
I vividly remember all these years later how if felt inside—I was filled with a huge sense of doom. I knew for sure that I was a ‘goner’—if some stranger didn’t kill us, my mother certainly would when she found out.
Luckily, the story has a happy ending. About halfway into our walk, my mother pulled up alongside us and angrily whispered, “Get. In. The. Car.” She was eerily/ scarily quiet until after we dropped off my classmate, and then she let me have it—screaming at the top of her lungs how worried she was, describing all the things that could have happened to us, topped off by these words (which she still says to me from time to time): “What is WRONG with you?!?!”
I remember that my punishment was that I wasn’t allowed to leave the yard and/or play with my friends for an extended period of time. But here’s the thing (and really the whole point to me telling you this story):
My feelings—the fear, the dread, the in-my-gut knowing that I should not keep walking, as well as the regret and disappointment in myself that I didn’t have the guts to stick up for what I knew was right (i.e. ignoring my gut instincts)—were strong enough, painful enough and intense enough to guarantee that I would never, ever do anything like that again. That was all the ‘punishment’ I needed.
I knew in that moment that I didn’t want to ever be in that situation again—not because of all of the stranger-danger warnings my parents gave me and my brothers, not because of the very short leash they had us on when it came to having freedom, and certainly not because I didn’t like being grounded. In the end, none of that really mattered. In the end, I learned the most because I figured it out for myself, the hard way.
Think about it: did you learn most from when your parents said something that ended with “…take my word for it,” or did you learn more from the hard lessons you insisted on learning first-hand? (Good example: someone can tell you, “Don’t touch that it’s hot! But there’s really no lesson like the one you get when you touch it and find out that it really is hot! No amount of punishment you could get for disobeying that rule is going to be greater than the one you just learned yourself!)
As a parent myself, I know how hard it is to just let kids make mistakes, especially because you can see what’s going to happen from a mile away! And it’s even harder to stand back and stay out of it while they experience the natural consequences of their decisions and actions. As parents we are wired to want to protect. But it’s so important to let them fail! That’s when the learning will happen: when they can look at the results of their decisions and actions—and think, “Wow, that sucked! I sure don’t want that to happen again!”
So next time you’re tempted to jump in, I urge you to wait. I promise you that the lessons learned through things like missing out on playing on the team due to bad grades, having to miss lunch or get a zero in PE that day because he forgot his backpack, or even not being able to graduate with their peers will teach more lasting lessons than any you try to teach through advice or punishments.
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