When to Cross The “Let Them Fail To Succeed” Line and Get Involved?

My daughter is no baby, but at 26 years old she is still having some experiences for the first time. When she turned 26 a few months ago, she was required by law to go off our health, dental, and vision plans and onto her own. Although she moved across the country a few years back, her visits home came often enough that she was able to keep many of her childhood healthcare providers, including the dentist.

unhappy girl
When should parents jump in to their adult children’s’ lives? (Unsplash @kylebroad)

When should parents of adult children jump in and help?

Identifying new local providers is toward the top of her “I need to adult now list,” but she had no immediate need until a few nights ago when severe dental pain woke her. She called me sobbing the next day, fully aware of my familiarity with the debilitating pain of dental woes. It sounded like she might need a root canal. Her insurance company was able to provide her with a dentist that was not too far from her office, and she got an appointment for that afternoon. She texted me from the chair.

“He said I need six root canals,” she wrote.

WHAT? Is that even a thing?

We texted back and forth and I realized my daughter had no clue. Was this my fault? Had I not taught her to question things that simply did not make sense? Even professionals get things wrong. But, clearly, she was not comfortable having to be put into a “defy authority” situation because she is a people pleaser. Now she had to stand up to the doctor and tell him that she did not trust his recommendation.

Mommy guilt; How could my child be so ill-prepared? Our local dentist’s office was closed but I left messages and he called back within moments. Knowing my daughter’s history, he agreed that the diagnosis was unlikely to be correct. He said he would be “shocked if she needed even one root canal.”

She left the office without getting any work done. The dentist disagreed vehemently and made some comment about “Mom on the phone.” I know at some point–and in some situations–she needs to learn life’s hard lessons on her own. But, what is that point?

Our instinct as parents is to protect our children.

My daughter is an adult but I still feel the need to protect her. Common sense–and lots of good articles–tell us that if we don’t let them fail they won’t be prepared for life. But isn’t thwarting unnecessary medical procedures in a different league than letting a child suffer through school-provided cheese and crackers because they forgot their lunch, or getting a bad mark because they left their clarinet at a friend’s house?

Questioning my involvement, I turned to parenting authority Parenting Coach Lisa DiSciullo, of Parenting Matters, who said, “With older children, our role shifts from being a parent manager to a parent consultant. We can be there to offer advice, when asked, and to coach them through handling their own problems.”

DiSciullo said, “In this case, you have much more life experience and you gave her your opinion when she asked. The issue comes when we take problems over for our kids or get overly directive in how they have to handle it. If, when she called you, you said: give me your insurance company information; I’ll find a dentist for you; I’ll make an appointment for you; and conference me in when it’s time to make any decisions on work to be done and I’ll talk to him, you would be taking over and enabling her to be more dependent on you.”

We do our best to prepare our kids for the grown-up situations they will face–until an acute situation arises that requires an immediate decision. We offer our input to ensure that they don’t hurt themselves–physically or financially. But, where should we draw the line? Should the “let-them-learn-and-grow-from-their-failure” mentality still apply if their decisions can have less physical consequences than unnecessary dental/medical procedures? What about the car mechanic who tells our kids that they need a new carburetor? Or the exterminator who tells them there is a termite problem that can’t be seen?

A young adult in a new city might get tripped up by some of this, particularly if she has not developed a network of trusted professionals. Our children don’t have a lifetime of experience that helps them realize when something seems off. I remember a time when I was in grad school and I was buying my first used car. I phoned my dad with questions and the salesman bullied me into thinking I was immature for reaching out to my dad. I was embarrassed. Conjuring up this moment provided me with the empathy I needed to help my daughter leave that dentist’s office.

DiSciullo said, “Rarely do decisions have to be made in the moment, and what others think or imply is their behavior and we can choose to respond however we like.” She said, “Parents need to step in when there’s a question of health and safety, like a toddler climbing a wobbly barstool, a middle schooler playing with firecrackers unsupervised, or a young adult who can’t function because of excessive drinking.”

My daughter’s problem is yet to be resolved. DiSciullo suggests I use this experience as a jumping off point for more discussion. “There’s also some learning in having the conversation about what her opinion was when she called you, what information she had, how she processed that, and what she would have decided had you not been available,” she said.

This makes me wonder about other life lessons I may have missed, and how to discover the correct balance between looking out for our kids and letting them fail so that they can learn. I think our kids will be more likely to succeed if they know that while they should figure out for themselves if they can eat chicken after the expiration date, or if they should take a personal day for a bad case of PMS, it’s okay to seek our input in making critical decisions. We love them. We support them.

We show them the skills we use to make good choices, and then we guide them to be able to make them for themselves, someday soon.

You Might Also Want to Read:

33 Life Skills Your Young Adult Needs to Learn to Adult

Headshot Melanie Wilson

Melanie Wilson teaches women entrepreneurs how to write better through a series of Business Writing Bootcamps. She runs a local chapter of a women in business empowerment group, covers the education beat for a local online newspaper and does the marketing for a local professional theatre company. She lives in Summit, NJ and is watching her children slowly leave the nest.

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