I learned the most important lesson of parenting when I was a seventh grader. After an elementary life of academic excellence, I went through a rebellious streak. In a fit of principle, I decided that homework (especially in math) was no longer a requirement — it was simply a means to an end. Once I knew the material, I reasoned, it was just a waste of time to keep doing problems.
It was a great strategy with one fatal flaw — homework was graded.
As the quarters progressed, I did less and less homework. Although my test scores stayed consistently high, my homework grades went further and further down. By the end of the year, my grade in pre-algebra had dropped from an A to a D. I spent the two weeks between the end of school and our family vacation worried sick that my parents would get my report card and I would be left at home.
I shouldn’t have worried. When my record card arrived, my parents didn’t yell.
They listened, as I explained my logic. They told me that I owned my academic success and that my actions were my own. They reminded me that all actions have consequences. They didn’t make excuses, or tell me I didn’t understand what I was doing. They didn’t try to fix it.
In short, they let me fail.
When I look back at that moment, as I have many times in my life, it is always with amazing respect. Letting me fail couldn’t have been easy. I’d like to say there weren’t any real consequences, but the truth is that there were. I got kicked out of honors math and had to take pre-algebra — the exact same class — again. After that, I couldn’t take honors math and because my high school gave a 5.0 A, losing the maximum honors load mathematically eliminated me from valedictorian.
But the negative consequences were far overshadowed by the positive ones. I learned my lesson well, paying close attention to my teacher’s requirements in the future. I met my best friend in pre-algebra that ‘repeat’ year and we ended up being in math every year in high school. Graduating ninth placed me in the top ten, but didn’t put me in the pressure cooker that was the fight for first. I got into a good college and I left home knowing one important thing: No one was going to protect me from my own errors in judgement.
As a parent myself, I want to believe I am capable of letting my kids fail. I look back on that moment and wonder if I would have done the same thing. When it matters, when the stakes are high, will I have the courage to give my kids that lesson? Or will I want to fix it? Will I rationalize and tell myself that they didn’t know any better and bail them out.
I don’t think we really know how we will act, until we act. I’m just thankful that I know what it looks like, and feels like, to trust your kids to own it. To accept and acknowledge their growing maturity, to give them the right to make decisions and to take the consequences that come with it. To reject the helicopter.
Because I’ve made it clear, I’m only flying to college for parent’s weekend.