How do you allow a child the freedom to fail and make mistakes while ensuring that they are learning from it. Just because a child refuses to conform does not make him/her a loser/problem/etc. Just because they are doing well now does not mean they will be like that for ever. You will never know when some one could blossom into a butterfly or have a humbling fall from grace. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, but I also don’t want to be reckless and harm my child’s life and/or wash my hands of what is definitely my responsibility.

Example 1: Suppose they are hanging out with the wrong crowd. Maybe this will teach them a good lesson in life because you never know when someone will come across a character who may have malicious intentions. Learning to deal with such people should be part of life. At the same time, I don’t want my kid to turn into a criminal, getting sucked into something into/witness acts of criminality. I want my kid to know when to draw the line and I would encourage them to have diverse friends from diverse backgrounds.

Example 2: Just because a child does not do well in studies does not mean they can't succeed (in the eyes of the society) at a later point in time. But I don’t want to ignore not doing well in studies because that might be a sign of delinquency and/or lead to criminal behavior. ( I am not saying that there are no educated criminals .. but you should get the idea).

My questions are : Is there a good heuristic/rule of thumb I can use to ensure that my child is not becoming a delinquent/threat to society and maybe lean on being somewhat productive in the eyes of society? I don’t mean that as an act of external validation, but we are social creatures and people's opinion of you matters to a certain degree.

How can I ensure that my love/affection for the child is not letting me see the reality of what they are becoming in case it is something problematic?

Preferably I would want to train my child (because that is my job) to be a self educated person who can handle the stress and surprises life has to offer and that means learning to deal with both success and failure, learning to deal with happiness and sadness.

I would prefer some scientific literature or books/resources based on such literature that doesn't put meaning into every single act/incident and/or overly blames/praises either the child/parent for what they have/will become.

There is only so much you can do after all right?

  • I recommend the author Ron Taffel - he has written a number of great books. The premise of his teaching is that it is your job as a parent to maintain an envelope for your child that is just a bit larger than his life. As he grows, he will bump up against the edges of the envelope, and you will gradually enlarge it, giving room to explore while keeping decision-making at an appropriate level.
    – MJ6
    Jun 10, 2014 at 15:50

5 Answers 5


Generally, you get good judgment from experience, and you get experience from bad judgment. So you want to let your child make lots of small decisions, and see the consequences of them.

  • don't feel like doing that homework? The school may impose a consequence on you, such as staying in at recess to do it. I am not going to step in to prevent that consequence.
  • stayed up really late video gaming? You are going to be very tired at 6am tomorrow. I am going to get you up anyway. And if I can't get you up, you are going to miss that event you wanted to go to. Or if it's school, you're going to get whatever the consequences are for an unexcused absence.
  • ate all your Halloween candy in one binge, and now you have none while your friends still have some? Both your stomachache and your jealousy of the friends' stashes come from the same decision.

Now, because I'm not a cruel person, I warn kids about the consequences that might come with some of their decisions. But if they make the decision anyway, I don't shelter them. This works great as long as the consequences are:

  • pretty much immediate. The next day, perhaps the next week, no longer
  • small enough that they cause no permanent damage
  • easily connected directly to the decision (which is more likely if the possible consequences of the decision were discussed when it was made)

So we're heading out somewhere and you don't want to wear your coat? That's cool. (Or even downright cold, perhaps.) When you feel cold and you regret not having the coat, we'll talk about predicting what will happen when you make certain choices. Then we'll go home early, because you're cold, or maybe I made you bring your coat even though I didn't make you wear it and you can learn from that too.

When it comes to hanging around with a bad crowd and that sort of thing, the consequences are nebulous and don't start to kick in for a long time. That makes them very hard to learn from. And some of them (getting arrested or convicted, getting shot in a gang war, becoming addicted to controlled substances) will very definitely cause permanent damages.

So ideally your child would have had lots of lots of opportunities to make good decisions long before the "bad crowd" problem started. And some bad ones too, to learn from. About all you can do once you find yourself in this situation is give them more and more opportunities to gain that good judgment you want them to learn. And keep on closing the loop for them: when you get that grumpy complaining at 6am about how tired they are, you want to remind them that this was discussed last night. (Both I-told-you-so and mocking humor are wrong here, but something gentle like "I know. I was worried you would feel like this in the morning. It's unpleasant, I know" gets it across. You might even add "I hope you remember this feeling when you're deciding whether or not to keep playing, some other night."

Also, for a child over about 12, you can discuss their friends' problems a little bit. Not in a way that invites them to break confidences, of course. But kids tell you that X was suspended or B has broken up with D or Z was in a fight or Y is butting heads with the coach and was benched or even that A was arrested. You can talk about the circumstances that led up to it. You can play "what could have been done earlier" with those circumstances. I used to tell my kids all the time "the only thing better than learning from your mistakes is learning from somebody else's" and it's true. You can do this as young as 4 but you run the risk the child will share the lesson with the friend in a way that makes them feel bad ("my mum says it's your own fault you can't be in the play because you are the one who forgets your gym shoes all the time") so wait until your child has learned some discretion.

  • thank you for a wonderful answer, i cant unfortunately upvote it.
    – qwrty
    Jun 10, 2014 at 5:05
  • 2
    This is a great answer. I'd add "Give them as much freedom as possible as early and often as you can. If they are at a friend's birthday party being supervised by the friend's parents, leave them there alone. Same for soccer practice, music lessons, etc. Places where they are safe but out of your direct control are places where they can learn to exercise judgement on their own."
    – Marc
    Jul 10, 2014 at 16:28
  • You still have to drop a wall if the consequences are sufficiently dire or even if the child simply cannot comprehend them, which warrants a bit more note than your answer gave, methinks, but otherwise, yeah: solid answer.
    – The Nate
    Nov 4, 2016 at 4:09

One simple and useful measure of what you can tolerate is things that will not have permanent consequences.

Here's an example: a friend's son put his fist through a door. After he calmed down, my friend brought him tools and supplies to fix the door. The look on the son's face made it very clear he was positively grateful for the chance to fix what he broke. No permanent harm done; quite the opposite.

If (s)he's hanging around with a bad crown that will cause bad grades, you can judge how long that situation can go on before the bad grades might to cause a permanent problem. On the other hand, if (s)he's hanging around with a bad crowd that's liable to end in jail, that might already be a permanent problem: there are all kinds of things you can't do once you've been to jail (depending on exactly how you got there).

Be aware there's a huge difference between saying "I don't want you hanging with those kids" and punishing offenses, and sitting down to explain exactly what's the problem with hanging around with those kids, why it's likely to end in jail, why going to jail is such a big deal, and why you want your kid to have a better life than (s)he's setting himself or herself up for. If you do it right, your kid should "get" that you're coming from a place of love, even if they don't like it. It makes a huge difference.

But the most important thing is to do whatever you have to, to make it perfectly clear to your child that they can count on you to always listen to their problems. I taught in a "rough" high school for a while. Without exception, every kid who got into serious trouble followed the same pattern: they got into some minor trouble, decided they "couldn't" talk with their parents about it, followed their idiot friends' advice, and the minor trouble became serious trouble.

Not a single one of these kids would have ended up in serious trouble if they thought they could bring their minor problem that seemed big to them at the time to their parents without getting yelled at or worse.


The truth is, you have full capability to grow your child into a fully functioning and rational person in regards to social interaction, morals, learning, etc. This series will help you help your kid. It is a well-sourced parenting series by a philosophy podcaster of over 10 years. Find it here: Peaceful Parenting Series: Raising Children Without Aggression

It will have answers to many of your questions in unexpected ways. Simple ways explained in the series to make sure your kid doesn't become a delinquent:

  • Don't spank or abuse your kids
  • Breastfeed over a year if possible
  • Stay married

How can you make sure your kid doesn't hang out with the wrong crowd and how can you make sure they can handle unjust social situations?

  • Teach them philosophy
  • Keep your interactions just and non-exploitive
  • negotiate with your kids (if they win, they win)

Your kids will naturally learn what is fair and reasonable if you lead the way with your example. Good luck with your kids and enjoy parenthood!


There is a wonderful book called "Hold Onto Your Kids" by Dr Gordon Neufeld. I will link to his talk on it. It covers the idea that is terribly important for you to stay engaged with your kids over time & have their primary attachment remain to the core family instead of transferring to peers. When children are more attached to friends & seek more for the approval of friends over family, then you can end up at the mercy of changing tides, where "the wrong crowd" can hold too much influence over your child. I had so many "Ah hah" moments reading this book, because when I was young there was so much talk in media about "peer pressure" and I'd roll my eyes all the time about it, as an excuse as to why "good kids" turned bad. But the reality is that looking back, I too was under constant peer pressure but had no clue. My family life was actually pretty solid. I was very close with my siblings & while other kids were constantly trying to get me to do things, I didn't feel the pressure because I wasn't seeking their approval, so to me, it merely felt like "getting hassled". I found it irritating & avoiding hanging out with people who I felt like didn't respect my answers & continued to try to bug me about their own wants versus respecting that I already said "no thanks". This book helped me understand why my peers were in fact feeling the peer pressure that I wasn't & why they were bending to it. It also made me realize that much of my personal confidence came from knowing that I was already loved by the people I really did value most and that this crap going on at school couldn't touch that, ever, so it didn't bother me as much. I wanted to be liked All people do, but I didn't need it, and I could live with being unliked as long as it meant I could be myself.

With my own kids I just talk to them about everything, ask questions. I listen. I do not always try to offer my input, it's okay to just be a sounding board, even if you think you have the answers, you do not have to always give them. I let my kids make choices very very young, within any reasonable way I can (assuming you have accounted for safety, etc). I let them have their hair however they like, I let them choose clothing, I let them wear spiderman costumes for a week straight if we have no real reason they can't other than I'd like it better if they didn't. I do not try to limit the choices that are safe to make. I even let them go places without a coat when it's chilly. They learn soon enough that when I suggest a coat is a good idea, they should probably listen. I don't make arguments where life would teach them my suggestion was a good one, like if you take that toy outside & forget it, it will probably be ruined. I offer friendly tips, but seldom do I invoke actual demands, as I believe you have to learn for yourself that being cold at the zoo really stinks. It also means you likely have to leave early & that you are pretty miserable while there. And I never "I told you so". Instead I am kind & say something like, "Hey it looks like you are pretty cold. Why don't we go home & get warmed up & try this again another day?" They already usually know when they messed up, they seldom need to be told that & they almost never need to be told that you tried to warn them. They know that already & it doesn't serve to make them a better person, trust you more, or increase the odds of them coming clean with you with other mistakes. What you try to do overall in this approach is remain approachable, so that when your child has messed up & doesn't know what to do next, they ask your advice, not their friends. THAT is what my family was. I had girls at 15 asking me for advice on late periods & if they might be pregnant. Those are conversations you would ideally LOVE to have your 15yr old talk to you about, not her equally under equipped peers.

Here is the video that goes along with the book I mentioned. I think you will find it very interesting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlMkWJY5T_w


In addition to the other advice here, try to evaluate what they're doing in specific instances. So, for instance, resist thinking that your kid is "constantly disobedient" or "always talking back". Try to think less about what they're not doing and more about what they are doing. When they don't do what you say, they're actually doing something else, and sometimes it takes some practice, but the more you can recognize what that "something else" is, the better able you'll be to see what's important to them. There are times for kids to conform to others' needs and times they need a pass, and every kid is different. My daughter is incredibly self-motivated, so we ended up putting her in a Montessori-style school because it will give her a slightly longer grace period to come to terms with accepting external motivation. See, she absolutely needs to learn that lesson, but in a couple years, she'll be well-equipped to understand why she needs to learn it. Right now, she actually does fine in a traditional classroom setting, but I can already see it would be an awful struggle to try to get her to care about test scores or grades, and it probably wouldn't work for at least a couple of years, but in the meantime, she'd only learn the lesson that she hates school and schoolwork. My son just loves to help and I think he'll readily accept external motivation; however, while my daughter's driving force is having a purpose, his driving force is being an absolute goofball every moment of every day. So I want to make sure that, at least until he's a little more mature, he's in a school environment where they will be gentle and positive (even when they need to be firm) in getting him to be a part of a group dynamic.

Try to remember that what your kid is really doing, fundamentally, is not about you. However, you can determine how they express it by showing them whether you're consistent and predictable, whether you respect them and yourself or not, and whether you are big enough to handle what they don't know how to control or not. We have rules, but they can often be bent by "making a deal". The power of a deal is not unlimited, and both parties have to uphold their ends or we can't make deals for a while, but anybody can suggest a deal and we can make a decision together. So, my daughter can wear sandals to school if we can put her tennis shoes in her backpack and she'll change into them there (school rules and all). She's coming up on 5, and sometimes she really surprises me with the well-thought-out plans she suggests, sometimes even finding a way that I wouldn't have thought of. Sometimes her plans still won't work, and I always tell her, "You know, that's a great plan, and you did some really good thinking there, but we still can't do that, because [whatever reason]." Other times she has a tantrum, and when that happens, it's so clear on her face and in her voice and body that she's just bursting with emotion with no way to channel it. So I make sure she knows I'm there for her, but I don't try to make it stop, or try to comfort her out of it (when it's a real tantrum and not just being mad or disappointed). She can run off and close herself off in a room, and afterwards, I'll tell her how it's great that she can recognize when she needs time by herself as a way to deal with a really big emotion. I don't take offense at anything she says, but I don't tell her she doesn't mean it (because of course she does at the time), and I do say, "Please don't yell at me," or "I don't like to be yelled at," and "Well, I don't want to be yelled at right now, so I'm going to go into the next room until you're ready to talk to me more quietly."

Oh, and finally, SO MUCH undesirable kid behavior is because they're tired. Or hungry, but mostly tired. It changes EVERYTHING. So, if they're being just impossible, sometimes I'll just hold them for a moment and say, "I know, you've had such a big day, haven't you?" (Note: I NEVER tell them they're tired. There is practically nothing more likely to send them flying off the handle, lol.)

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