Passionate About Pittsburgh
and the Moms Who Live Here

Breaking the Cycle: When to Stop Bailing your Kids out of Trouble

It happened again last week. My five-year-old forgot her “rest time item” for her pre-kindergarten class that day. She realized that she had forgotten a beloved stuffed animal that she had her heart set on bringing to school that day as she was jumping out of my car in the front circle. I saw her face drop. I saw the tears start to flow as she slumped into school, in stark contrast to her normal cheerful goodbye and enthusiastic run into school without looking behind her.

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I went on with my morning, running errands and preoccupied with the busyness of trying to accomplish a million things while the kids were at school, but in the back of my mind, I knew it was coming. And, it did. About an hour after dropping her at school, I got a call from the nurse’s office saying that my daughter hadn’t stopped crying and that she said her tummy hurt. I talked to my daughter on the phone. I knew instantly what was wrong. She wasn’t sick. She just had forgotten something. She was heartbroken.

So, I drove home, grabbed her forgotten stuffed animal, that was hidden under a coat that she decided not to wear that day, and raced up to school.

After some convincing, I got her to settle down and to stay at school for the rest of the day. In addition to not having the stuffed animal, she was mad at herself for forgetting. I reassured her that everyone makes mistakes. Once she was home from school and her normal happy self, we talked again. I told her that this was a lesson. That Mommy could bring it up this one time, but that remembering the rest time item was her responsibility and that Mommy had to remember lunches, papers, backpacks, snacks, water bottles, coats, hats, and gloves. She was in charge of any extras. And that next time, I wouldn’t bring up the stuffed animal.

I relayed this story to my parents and they instantly told me that I was too lenient on my daughter – that I should have never driven the toy up to her school. I relayed this story to a mommy friend and she told me that I was too harsh on my daughter. That she would have caved and taken her kid home with her for the day at any glimmer of sickness, whether real or perceived. She is only five, I was told.

It wasn’t like it was a homework assignment or basketball shoes for an after-school practice, I thought to myself. But, someday soon, it could be those items. And, this is just the mistake of forgetting something. It could be bigger mistakes, like talking back inappropriately or seriously hurting another child’s feelings. When do we stop bailing our kids out if they have made a mistake? How do we strike a balance of meeting their needs, yet teaching them independence?

I have the flexibility in my schedule so that I could help out my child, but many parents simply don’t. They have set hours and/or many more children to manage than myself.

I began to think of some ways to address this issue in my home. If you want to teach kids an important lesson about self-reliance, yet still want to lovingly do everything in your power for them, I think these lessons start early.

  1. Give them the sole responsibility over remembering certain things. For my five year old, she has to remember her stuffed animal, but for my seven-year-old, these responsibilities increase to backpack and all items inside it and weather-related accessories. If those are lost, forgotten, etc., they know that it is not my problem, but theirs to solve.
  2. Leaving the house. If your child likes to travel with a toy or stuffed animal, give children the job of packing a small bag to go on outings that include that toy and a snack. This can increase over time to being able to pack some of their items for trips or vacations.
  3. Taking out the garbage, bringing plates to the sink, setting the table, making a bed, meal preparation help, putting away toys, tidying up their rooms, are all age-appropriate tasks in my home. Increase as they age.
  4. Reward system. My son is constantly asking for his electronic tablet. I allow him to use it only once he has completed his school work for the day. That way, he has earned his screen time for the day.

This car pool lane poster that was placed in front of a middle school went viral last year.

It tells parents not to bring these items to school and even labels that behavior shameful. “Are you delivering your son’s forgotten lunch” the poster begins. “His sports equipment? His binder or homework? Please turn around and save yourself from…’The Walk of Shame.’” After all, the poster points out, your kid will not starve or lose his starting position or fail to become President just because of this small screw up.

Parents with tweens and teens tell me that kids have to juggle so many things these days: demanding school work loads, extra-curricular activities, peer pressure, and the added social media burdens that none of us had as children. One mom argues that her teenagers are good, respectful girls that work hard at school and that she will continue to help them if they forget an occasional lunch or homework assignment. Driving these items up to school isn’t the end of the world. “I’m their mother,” she tells me. “That’s my job.”

Will I drive up an item to school next time or will I let my kid be upset over forgetting an item? Much easier said than done. I’ll be sure to let you know.


–Carissa Howard

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