I worry about adults who expend enormous energy trying to parent perfectly. A so-called “Helicopter Parent” seems to believe that any parental mistake will irreparably damage and scar their children. If the helicopter parent phenomenon becomes the norm, then we’re denying our children essential opportunities to be humanly imperfect, develop the essential human skill of resiliency, and learn from their (and our) mistakes.
I think we’re losing sight of how mistakes work.
In real life, we all screw up—because we’re all imperfect. As protective parents, we sometimes forget that every mistake gives us a golden opportunity to learn something. Usually, the bigger the gaffe, the bigger the lesson to learn.
As Bruce Lee, martial artist and actor, said: “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” I would add: “and if one has the courage (and common sense) to learn from our mistakes and make amends for them.”
Let’s be clear: mistakes are no fun. They hurt. Your children may be hurt by their mistakes, and yours. However, hurt doesn’t always equal harm (or demand that you enter helicopter parent mode). In fact, I’m willing to bet you learned some of life’s most important lessons in the aftermath of a major flub.
You saw an example of this principle during the first year of your child’s life. As your baby grew, she developed the urge to crawl. Your baby wants to get a toy (or extension cord) just out of her reach. But no matter how much she wants to crawl, she won’t know how to do it at first.
She’ll learn to hold her back legs up and push her shoulders and head well off the ground. Meanwhile, her belly will remain anchored on the floor, and she won’t be able to get going. She’ll grunt, flap, rock her head, kick, and sometimes scream in frustration. She won’t be happy.
But after a few days or weeks, she’ll somehow figure out how to crawl.
Will her frustration hurt her? No. While it may make her angry, it also motivates her to motor herself across the floor.
Later on, after watching you stroll around the house, she’ll begin to see that walking is faster and better than crawling. So she’ll learn to stand up while holding onto your hands or a piece of furniture. In the process, she’ll fall down—fairly often. She’ll struggle as she learns how to get herself back upright again.
She’ll bang her head on the coffee table, get a bruise, and cry inconsolably. You pick her up, hug her, and give her comfort. And once she figures out how to walk (and later, run), she will repeatedly lose her balance and fall down. Sometimes, as soon as she stands up, she’ll topple over again. Each time, you pick her up, hug her, and give her comfort.
Now, you could look at all this falling and head-bonking as failure or and endless series of mistakes. And, indeed, they are! However, the falling and head-bonking also enhance our daughter’s abilities, opportunities, and motivations to learn her ambulation skills—a universal example of trial and error.
Do we as fathers want our children to fall and hurt themselves? Of course not; it hurts us to see them hurt. But we understand these tenets:
- Your daughter will never learn to walk unless she falls down.
- Making the “mistake” of falling down hurts.
- You will comfort her (thereby giving her a sense of security), even when it hurts to see her hurt
- The falling is still worth the effort.
Keep the thought of your baby learning to walk in mind during all of your years of fathering. Instead of instantly beating yourself up (or berating your child) over a blunder, recognize the benefits of making mistakes.
I encourage you to take two more steps: honor her mistakes and honor your own.
Joe Kelly is the best-selling author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter and 5 other fathering books. He is also Co-Founder of New Moon Girls.
Adapted from Joe’s book Idiot’s Guides: Pregnancy for Dads, copyright 2014 Alpha Books and used by permission.