Why I want my children to learn from my own regrets

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

'Whatever you do, just make sure you travel", I told my nine-year-old son the other day.

"One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't. I wish I'd been brave enough to take off with a backpack into the world and experience it when I could'. 

Ok, so Mr nine is probably a bit young to really think about facing the world with his backpack – he currently struggles enough remembering it for school.

But if I can share with him what I've learnt from my regrets, then maybe he'll do things differently. Maybe he'll be more open to opportunity and more courageous from my advice. 

I hope he may use the knowledge as a positive. I hope he can appreciate that, while mistakes and subsequent regrets are part of life's learnings, there are times when he should grab the bull by the horns. Take the plunge, the risk and face the fear. Don't live with the 'what ifs' if you can avoid them. 

Just to get this clear, I'm not talking about burdening him with my soul wrenching personal regrets about relationships or the like. Some things should remain skeletons in the closet for a reason. 

Nor are my regrets a way to push him to do something he doesn't want to, just so I can live vicariously through him. Regrets are part of growing up and learning about ourselves. In fact, research has suggested that children who experience regret learn quickly from bad outcomes, so I'm not about wrapping him in cotton wool or making decisions for him. 

My thinking is more about what he can gain from what I missed. 

Passing on our learnings 

Health and wellbeing psychologist, Marny Lishman, agrees that our learnings should be passed down to our children so they can live their best lives and be happy and safe. However, she advises that there are limitations with what we should divulge. 

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"Regret or disappointment is often about something that we didn't do or achieve and is something that we learn about ourselves," she says. "I think it's fine to tell children how you feel about certain decisions you made in your life, but make sure they know it's about you and not them.

Remember that they have their own identity so, just because something is regretful to you, doesn't mean it will be a regretful decision for them."

Lishman notes that regret like "I should have travelled more" is a great lesson to share with your children, but something like "I regret having children" or "I regret marrying your father" would be too personal and painful for a child to hear. 

"Anything like that is probably best kept as inner dialogue to one's self or spoken about with a psychologist," she says. "Adult concepts really still need to be kept to adult conversations."

Learning from past mistakes 

On a day-to-day basis however, Lishman notes that communicating regrets with our children shows them that it's totally normal for us to be unhappy or disappointed with certain actions we did or didn't take.

The learning curve comes in showing them what we do about it next. 

"This will happen daily with kids from a young age where we make mistakes and then learn from them," says Lishman. "By talking this through with our children, we're preparing them for big regrets later on and the ability to push forward when they feel it.

"I think that, like a lot of parenting, it's the informal role modelling that parents are doing that has the most powerful effect on children. That's the formula your child is likely to use in the future in a similar circumstance."

With that in mind, I'll continue to be open and honest about sharing (suitable) anecdotes and personal learnings with my son. Maybe he'll take it onboard and maybe he won't. But at least there'll be no 'what ifs' on my behalf. It's sure to be something I won't regret.