By Peter Sessum
As parents we love our children and want to protect them from everything, but at a certain point it becomes overbearing. The best lessons are hard learned so sometimes it is good to let children learn the hard way. There are even times when you can help that along, and if you get a little amusement out of it, all the better. Of course, your child may not talk to you for a while.
Not all the time though…
There are times when children just need to trust you. When you say the stove it hot, they need to know not to touch it. Don’t let them touch it once “just to be sure.” Yes, they will never touch a hot stove again, but they might also never touch a cold one again either. The idea is to reinforce messages, not psychologically scar your child for life.
As a parent there are certain warnings that must be heeded. Anything with a safety concern should be taught sternly. However, if it is no big deal, let the kid learn the hard way and that message will be reinforced. In addition, it will teach the kid that you really do know what you are talking about when you warn him or her about lessons in the future.
Learn on your own or father knows best?
There are times when it is good to let a child learn on the fly. One of my favorite examples of this is from a Chicken Soup for the Soul book about a child that spilled milk and rather than get mad his mother asked him what he should use to clean it up. He tried a couple different things before he found the best thing to soak up milk off the floor. Then she filled the bottle with water and let him practice carrying it. It was great, it taught him problem-solving and he credited it as being one main reason why he became a scientist.
I encourage my child to learn her own way of doing things. I think it encourages independence and preparation for the big bad world when the time comes that no one will hold her hand. However, there are times to step in. I tried Big Fun v. Little Fun for a while to get her to speed up her chores, but as she got older the problems stopped being attention span and started being process. As a teenager her weekly chore list grew to decent size and her lackadaisical way of going about her chores was inefficient and took all day. While it is her time she is wasting, I didn’t want her to lose a whole Saturday cleaning the kitchen.
After a while of letting her do things her way, I stepped in and told her to do it mine. I gave her specific directions and then left. Not just the room, but the building. When I returned, she didn’t want to talk to me for a while. Not because I had her do something stupid, but because it was so efficient she felt silly. She didn’t want to admit that “my way” was better than her way especially since she had attitude when I explained how I wanted her to do it. That was when I shared with her my philosophy as an Army leader: “There are two ways to do things, my way and the hard way.” Doing things the hard way is stupid, so if anyone ever showed me that my way was the hard way I would change my way. So now Anna gets to call her way of cleaning the kitchen her way and not Dad’s way.
Sometimes teaching lessons can be fun
Of course procedural things like cleaning are easy to teach. There is a quantifiable difference in cleanliness or time saved. But how do you teach intellectual lessons the hard way? Make it suck a little. Or in my case, amuse yourself.
Everyone should know to check their sources. As a journalist, verifying information is critical. Reporting on incorrect information can end a career. For law enforcement, acting on wrong information can be deadly. The challenge of teaching a teenager to not blindly follow information was actually quite easy, but required a lot of patience on my part.
One night I received an email alert that my daughters had sent her first tweet. You can see part of the text exchange. It happened because I told her it was time for bed and she just went, no questions asked. Worst of all, it was a weekend so she could have stayed up a little later anyway. Needless to say, she was not pleased that her dad had tricked her.
I then had bad news for her. That was not the first night I had done it. In fact, for about the previous two or three weeks I would randomly tell her it was time for bed and she went. Not once did she look over her shoulder at her clock or change her gaze a degree to stop playing on her phone long enough to see the time in the corner. As you can imagine, she was pissed! Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop laughing and it still cracks me up to this day.
As far as dad jokes go this might be my crowning achievement. It took so long to set up and the reveal was so subtle but it was totally worth it. You can bet that my daughter doesn’t believe everything she hears now. She double checks all dubious information and gave me side eye for a month when I said it was time for bed. Each day she looks as a clock just to be sure.
It didn’t cost her anything except maybe some TV time. At most she lost a couple of hours staring at the ceiling, but that lesson is going to stick with her for the rest of her life. Much more so than if I just said, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
Some lessons are best learned the hard way. They are the ones that stick with you for the rest of your life. If you are handed all the information it isn’t earned and as such is not respected. So when it is safe, let your children learn things the hard way. It will serve them in the end and maybe as a bonus you will get some entertainment out of it. I know I did and it was one of the most amusing thing you can do to your kid without having someone call child services.