Q: My two preteen daughters spend weekends with my new wife and me. While my wife loves the girls, she's quick to criticize them and corrects their mistakes immediately. My ex and I have our differences, but we think kids need room to make mistakes to become independent. My wife says that's asking for trouble as the girls head into their teenage years. Who's right?
A: Don't think of this as an either/or situation. There are times to correct a child on the spot, and there are times to allow the situation to play out.
"Effective parents vary their responses depending on the situation. Some poor decisions require immediate feedback; others present genuine learning opportunities that may allow the child to make a better decision the next time," says Dr. Jane Bluestein, a New Mexico-based educator and author who has advised thousands of parents, teachers and children over the past 40 years.
If one of your daughters makes a choice that puts her in danger, intervene right away.
"Discuss safer options and help her connect those choices to more positive outcomes," says Bluestein.
But if her science project fails, it's no biggie. Talk about how experimentation is part of the scientific process. Discuss how "mistakes" can lead to unexpected discoveries. Albert Einstein inspired students by telling them that "a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new."
Bluestein adds: "The most constructive way to help a child learn from mistakes is to shift your focus from what's wrong or undesired to the behavior you want."
For example, say your daughter uses a snarky or defiant tone with you. Telling her that she's being disrespectful is less effective than saying, "I want to hear what you have to say when you're willing to talk to me in a more respectful voice."
If your child's mistake is a result of a lack of understanding, explain what she needs to know. Don't play the blame game. If you say, "Too many sodas can cause an upset stomach," that's more validating than, "You're sick because you drank too many sodas, even though I said not to."
If your daughter makes a mistake while trying to achieve an unclear goal, help her focus on what she's trying to accomplish. Ask, "How did you want this to turn out? What was supposed to happen?"
Avoid expressing disapproval or disappointment. Instead, try, "That's interesting!" or, "That wasn't what you had in mind, was it?"
Get your daughters to reflect on their mistakes. Once the dust settles, ask them what they might do differently next time. Can they guess possible outcomes of a different approach?
Never shame kids or call them stupid.
"I disagree with 'tiger' parenting advice that condones humiliating children or calling them names in order to motivate desirable behaviors or academic achievement," says Bluestein. "There's a big difference between making a mistake and being one."
Encourage your wife to fight the temptation to fix the girls' every misstep. "It's always better to guide kids to a solution by helping them rethink their approach, strategy or goal," says Bluestein.
(For more advice, go to janebluestein.com.)
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)