Why You Should Let Your Children Make Mistakes


Why You Should Let Your Children Make Mistakes

Illustration: Arati Gujar

As the mother of a teenage girl, I am often faced with a unique dilemma. My daughter is, in the immortal words of Britney Spears, “not a girl, not yet a woman”. So I’m faced with the prospect of a tightrope walk. I have to look out for her safety, but I have to maintain such a delicate balance that I can’t intrude in her private space. Which leaves me with the question – how do I stop her from making mistakes that are patently obvious to me? Did anyone say motherhood is hard?

This the reason an essay I read recently in the hugely popular “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, where a mother wonders if she has gone too far in her quest to protect her daughter, struck a chord with me. The relationship between a mother and daughter suddenly turns a corner after a daughter moves away from home and her communication with her mother becomes sporadic. Attempts by the mother to reach out are met with terse replies. Naturally, the mother starts worrying about her daughter’s well-being, and one day, imagining the worst, breaches her daughter’s privacy by breaking into her email account.

Her daughter’s emails reveal that her boyfriend has tested HIV positive, with her own fate hanging in the fray until a conclusive test can be done months later. All that the horrified mother wants to do is rush to her daughter’s side, but the fear of her daughter’s reaction to her snooping holds her back. What if the daughter feels so violated by the breach of her privacy that she never forgives her mother? In effect, all that her snooping has accomplished is put her in the even worse position of wanting to reach out to her daughter but being unable to do so.

The story ends on a positive note, with the daughter remaining HIV free and understanding the motive behind her mother’s actions. But she might well not have. The mother’s misgivings were totally justified. The daughter could have viewed the violation of her privacy as a lack of trust on her mother’s part, exposing the mother-daughter relationship to the very real risk of permanent fracture.

How do I stop my teenage daughter from making mistakes that are patently obvious to me?

The reason I say this with so much conviction is because when I look back at my own teenage years, I realise that it was underscored by two major desires: the desire to be accepted by both my peers and parents, and the desire to be trusted. My relationship with my parents saw its fair share of friction during this major transitory phase. My excess weight was one bone of contention, and their disapproval of my closest friend was another. My mother would come up with new exercise and diet schemes in an effort to badger me into losing weight, while both my parents routinely lectured me on how I needed to see less of my best friend since we both enabled each other’s laziness and wastage of  time – time we would do well investing in studying and getting admission into a good professional course. Of course, they meant well, but my adolescent brain interpreted their words as “you’re not good enough” and “we don’t trust you to do anything good with your life.”

As a mother myself today, I find myself increasingly understanding and identifying with my parents. When I see my daughter making the same mistakes I made at her age, I long to rush in and take over the reins of her life. But I remember how I dug in my heels, how rebellious I felt when my parents tried to do this with me, and I hold back. Sometimes, you just have to let your children make mistakes, even mistakes that you know for certain will break their hearts and leave them in pain. Even when you know that your teenage years are when you feel things most keenly – joy and pain are both magnified many times over. Yet, it is a rite of passage they must personally undergo, and intervening is only going to prove counterproductive.

My daughter recently started dating a boy her own age. In my opinion, they are far too young to be in a serious relationship. They are both full of insecurities and self-doubt which they constantly project upon each other. Almost every other day, my daughter will come to me, complaining about how he doesn’t give her the assurance and approval she craves from him. While I long to tell her she’s too young for all this and to break up with him, I know doing so will achieve nothing. She is not in a position to hear me. I have to let the relationship run its course, and for her to draw these conclusions on her own, without any permanent damage to her heart. All I can do is offer my opinion and let her realise these truths, with a twinge of sadness at what I feel I’m going to witness.

I can say this with confidence, because I have a stellar precedent. I was in this position not too long ago. While it is true that my relationship with my parents wasn’t all smooth sailing, there came a watershed moment that was to set the tone for our bond. I was 21. I had recently lost my father and had moved to Pune to study journalism. I met a guy – who, I now realise with the power of hindsight – was quite a jackass. He was arrogant and exploitative, but hey, I was in love! I found him macho and exciting and was totally in denial of his many faults.

My mother trusted me enough to let me make mistakes.

My mother met him when she came to visit me and she must have realised right away just how wrong he was for me. She was also wise enough to see that trying to get me to break up with him would only make me dig in my heels and pursue him with renewed vengeance. I will never forget what she said to me then: “This boy is not right for you. He is going to break your heart. But I also know that you will not only pick up the broken pieces of your heart, but that you will emerge stronger from the experience. And I love and trust you enough to let things take their natural course. I am always there to support you. Wholly and unconditionally.”

What a powerful message that was. I felt an overwhelming sense of support that was not contingent on my always making the right decisions. My mother trusted me enough to let me make mistakes. She would still stand by me, unequivocally and without judgement. And so, I must trust my daughter too. To make her own mistakes, to have her heart broken, to let things take their own course.

So I’m letting my mother’s example guide me. I offer my daughter advice, both solicited and unsolicited. I make her aware of the potential pitfalls of any situation she’s facing. But my overriding message to her is always this: she is allowed to screw up. I will stand by her no matter what, no exceptions.