Good Decisions, Bad Outcomes Are Okay

In early fall, parents are overwhelmed with all the decisions to be made about activities and schedules for their children. After-school programs, school electives, sports, tutoring, part-time jobs, extended day care, all arriving at the doorstep simultaneously. For many parents it is a time of considerable anxiety. Their concern is always the same: What if we make the wrong decision for our child?

Jon is 7 years old and not very coordinated. His parents think that pushing him a bit to try the soccer program would be positive for him. He can run pretty fast but he’s rather timid. They hope this will improve his confidence as well as enhance his social relationships, which are rather limited so far. But what if it doesn’t work out? They fear that he will then be even more discouraged.

Barbara has a 9 year-old daughter and a part-time job. She has been asked to extend her hours this year. She loves the job and certainly could use the extra money. But it means having Michelle go to the aftercare program three times a week instead of twice. Michelle is uncertain about wanting to do that. What if it makes her sad? Will she be angry with her mother for not being at home for her?

Liz wants to get an after-school job. She plans to use the money for clothes and CDs. Her grades are okay, but not great, and her parents think she could be putting more effort into school. They are concerned the job would make it less likely that Liz would improve her grades – or, even worse that the grades might slip.

Embedded in these dilemmas is an implicit notion of the child’s fragility and of the parents’ responsibility to be all knowing. Both are erroneous. Children are nearly always more resilient than we give them credit for. Their capacity to recover, even from major trauma, is exceptional, especially in a supportive, caring family environment. And the parents who agonize over these decisions are clearly very caring.

But no one can be all knowing. Parents cannot possibly predict or control all the circumstances that will influence how something turns out. A good decision doesn’t ensure a good outcome. A bad outcome doesn’t mean it was a bad decision. There are just too many variables.

Jon’s coach may turn out to be a great guy who makes Jon feel very comfortable and his play improves over the season. Or, some child on the team dislikes Jon for an unknown reason and turns some of his teammates against him, making it a miserable experience for Jon. Or, Jon could meet a boy from another part of town and they form a great new friendship. Or, it could turn out to be just an ordinary experience, nothing especially good or bad, and neither Jon nor his life are any different when the season ends.

Parents are too afraid of making mistakes and too afraid of their children making mistakes. It’s much healthier to convey an attitude that mistakes are an inevitable and important part of our lives. Try something. If it doesn’t work out, learn from it and move on a little wiser. Of course we must weigh risks and should discourage or sometimes forbid something that seems to be a serious threat to a child’s health and welfare. But those are the exceptions. Most decisions are not that important even though parents often think they are.

Even the irreversible decisions can be adjusted to it they don’t turn out right. Is it okay to have Melissa start kindergarten a year later or to have Billy repeat first grade? Once done, these decisions have to be played out for the rest of the child’s educational years. Unfortunately there is no way to accurately predict the long-term consequences. Only a “best guess” is possible. Little Billy is immature physically and socially and is struggling with some developmental delays in his learning skills. However, he could end up 6-foot-three and was reading above grade level by the time that he finished the third grade. He may hold a resentment that he didn’t graduate with his two neighborhood friends that originally entered kindergarten with him. Or just simply feel ashamed about having repeated a grade. But you can’t know all that. You weighed the current factors and did what you thought was best at the time.

Over the years, if you are focusing on the upside aspects, maybe Billy will too. Perhaps he experienced more success socially and athletically because he was slightly older than most of his classmates. And he was the first in his class to get a license, making Billy very happy even if it made his parents anxious a year earlier! But even if Billy’s personality doesn’t allow him to fully accept the decision his parents made, as he goes off into his adult life a year’s difference loses it’s significance and the issue probably becomes increasingly meaningless to him over time.

So tell Jon or Michelle or Liz that you are not sure how this will turn out and that each decision to try something new has a fair chance of working but no guarantees. This attitude conveys confidence in your child as well as in yourself. It also teaches children not to be afraid of life and the decisions they will have to make when they are on their own.