Strategies to help young children learn valuable life skills and gain self-confidence

Stop rescuing your child and allow natural consequences do the teaching.

Boy in superhero costume

“I love you too much to deny you the privileges of making mistakes.” – Kathy Lee Gifford, The Gift That I Can Give.

If your goal as a parent is to protect your child from getting hurt or avoid confrontation, then you are parenting from a fear-based perspective. This can create anxiety for a child attempting to explore their world and learn from their mistakes. It is difficult to let “stuff happen”, as a parent’s natural instinct is to protect their children. We don’t want our children to feel distressed so we protect them. However, is parental protection worth missing out on some of the valuable life lessons a child can learn when they are given the opportunity to explore and make mistakes on their own?

When children are able to process their emotions related to good or bad decisions, parents may not need to say or do anything else. Instead of jumping in and protecting children, learn to trust natural consequences to do much of the teaching for you. Dealing with frustration is a building block for coping skills in life.

When you constantly remind your child what to do, such as pack their backpack or put their dishes in the sink, you are teaching your child they are not capable of being responsible without you telling them what to do. This parenting technique will not teach your child to respect themselves or develop necessary confidence skills to be successful later in life. When we allow our children to attempt something new and fail at a young age, the consequences are far different than when they make a similar mistake later.

For example, allowing them to negotiate on their own for a turn on the swing or deciding to do something against the rules of the school just because they want to be liked by their friends are both scenarios that will teach valuable lessons for the future. The worse possible outcome is they are sad because they did not get a turn on the swing or sent to the school office for a few hours of detention. Next time—and there will definitely be a next time—they will be a better negotiator or able to stand up to their friends and say “no” when they are making bad decisions. These lessons would not have been learned if a parent or caregiver was hovering and guiding their child’s every move.

Fast forward when they are 18 years old and have not developed a strong sense of self because they have been protected their whole life. They may get into a bad situation where the outcome is much more severe and possibly has life-altering consequences.

While it is hard thing to witness, when we allow a child to fail frequently early in life, they will build strong resiliency skills that will allow them to deal appropriately with letdowns and sticky situations in the future. According to pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Cunningham, young children are more resilient than we think and cannot grasp the gravity of situations like adults can and don’t dwell on things to the same extent.

When a child makes a mistake, help them reflect the situation as well as the part they played in the scenario. Focus on the moment they made a decision to participate or make a bad choice and discuss alternative options that would have had a better outcome. We want our kids to feel equipped and competent. It can be a great feeling for parents when they feel they have raised young adults who are responsible, trustworthy and resilient.

Michigan State University Extension suggests helping the child process their decision by asking what happened, how it happened and why it happened. In the future, they will think about this process, make better decisions and take responsibility for their actions. It will encourage them to think things through next time. With some thoughtful, compassionate guidance, we can turn unhappy events into a valuable learning experience that will help the child make better decisions in the future.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2017 impact report: “Preparing young children for success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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