About a year ago, my son Tristan came into the house wearing rollerblades. He’d been outside, rolling around in the yard with the hose turned on, a short stocky boy, fully dressed in school polo and khaki shorts, spraying himself and screaming. Now he headed inside, dripping wet, and announced that he needed to pee.
I was sitting on the sofa folding laundry when I heard him squishing across the kitchen floor.
“Tristan,” I said. “Please take off your rollerblades and dry off before you come in the house.”
It seemed all very clear to me. I didn’t want him ruining our floor. But more importantly, I knew that going pee in wet rollerblades would take a level of concentration and coordination he wasn’t capable of. In fact, I’m a grown-ass man, and I doubt I could do it successfully.
But because he was 8, he didn’t listen. He just strolled past me toward the restroom, his stride confident, nose in the air, shoulders high. Everything about his disposition seemed to say, “I know what I’m doing.”
Tristan was nearly into the hallway when I said. “Dude! Do you really think you can go pee in rollerblades? You are going to get hurt.”
“I’ve gotta go, Dad.”
I didn’t believe him. He didn’t need to go that badly. I knew him well enough to know that he was just being lazy. And as he passed me, I could have easily grabbed him, taken the rollerblades off his feet, forced him into a towel, and then pushed him into the restroom.
But I didn’t. I wanted him to learn from his mistakes.
I’ve heard the saying “Let your children make their own choices” a million times, but as a parent, I must say, I’ve had a hell of a time with it. I’ve been a father for about 10 years now. I’m on my third child, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve grabbed one of my children moments before they fell from jumping on the bed, or forced them to finish a school project so they didn’t end up going to school and facing the consequences. But now, in my 30s, I’m getting better at taking my hand off the wheel and letting my children learn from their mistakes.
But the problem is, I’m still a pretty young parent, and I haven’t seen the full scope of my children learning from their mistakes. In fact, sometimes it feels like they flat-out never will. I tell them not do something dangerous, but they do it anyway, get hurt, and then immediately do it again. Or they don’t get hurt on the second, or third, or even fourth time. In moments like those, not stopping them feels like I’m the only voice of reason on the Titanic asking my children to avoid the iceberg. Perhaps they won’t live long enough to learn from their mistakes.
Sometimes, it’s mistakes with friends, where they do something embarrassing or rude, and I want their friends to set them straight. But they don’t always, and suddenly I wonder if they will never learn that they are acting like a jerk because no one outside of me has called them on their crap. In moments like those, it’s frustrating. It feels like my children are never going to learn from their mistakes, and maybe I do need to intervene more.
So as Tristan went into the restroom and locked the door, I was a mix of emotions: hopeful that he’d learn a valuable lesson, but also suspicious that he never would. And that really is the catch-22 of natural consequences. There isn’t always, 100% of the time, a sure way to teach a child.
And as I sat there thinking about that, I thought about my mother. I thought about how she used to get on me for strutting around in my underwear, or for eating nothing but garbage, or for riding my rollerblades in the house. The sad thing is, I pulled the same crap Tristan does. And in order for me to stop making so many juvenile decisions, my mother came at me with a mix of approaches. She gave me advice, stopped me when something was incredibly dangerous, and let me learn from my own bad decisions when prudent.
And I think that’s the reason this moment with Tristan stands out so much in my mind.
I asked him not to do something stupid, I told him why, and then I let him learn.
I heard Tristan raise the toilet seat. Then I heard the hard thud of my son hitting the bathroom floor. I’m not sure if he was in the middle of his business or not. I don’t know exactly how hard he hit the ground. But what I do know is that he was in there for a good long time.
Tristan came out of the bathroom a few moments later. He was still wet from playing outside, so it was difficult to tell if he’d peed on himself. His eyes were a little moist from crying. His upper lip was stiff. In both hands were his rollerblades. The dad in me really wanted to lecture him for a good long time. But I didn’t. He was holding onto his pride. I knew, in my heart, that’d he’d learned a valuable lesson.
“You okay?” I asked.
He didn’t tell me what happened. He didn’t try to explain himself. He just nodded.
“You going to take off your rollerblades next time?”
He nodded again and went outside.