Protection and provision are not enough.
“Here’s the paradox: If we protect our children too absolutely, we actually end up exposing them to other risks. And leave them without the skills, experiences, and minor life lessons that they’ll need to handle the big challenges as they grow up.” (Perri Klass, M.D.)
When children are very young, they must be protected and nurtured in absolutely every way. An infant is helpless and needy at all times. He must be fed, clothed, changed, transported, and even cajoled into sleep – or else he will get sick and die. Babies are totally unprepared for life. Now flash forward 18 years, and that same human, now full-grown, had better not be helpless or needy, or else something very wrong has taken place in the meantime. That 18 year old should be a strong, self-sufficient young man, able to learn on his own at school, have a variety of healthy relationships, and be able to do the jobs that other adults require of them, in order to have any success in his adult life. After all, he is a legal adult with all the rights and privileges that come with: working, paying taxes, continuing education, voting, getting married, having children, and even fighting in a war. He should be ready to fly on his own – maybe not soar yet, but fly enough to survive.
In a recent article about “helicopter parenting” we get a glimpse of the problem from the eyes of a college professor. “Kathleen Crowley, a professor of psychology says parents’ eagerness to overdirect their children’s lives has led to young adults who are less independent and creative than the generation before. Twenty years ago, Crowley announced an upcoming test in her college classes and that was the end of the discussion. Now, she says she’s expected to provide students with a study guide so they know exactly how to prepare, and she’s had these same young adults come to her in tears because they’d earned their first B and didn’t know how to cope. Because of this “extended adolescence,” when these students graduate and enter their careers, they’re now offered workplace mentoring and on-the-job training just to ensure their success.” (Jennifer Gish)
So why are so many 18-28 year old men and women still in adolescence? Why are so many having nervous breakdowns in the midst of their inability to deal with the trials of life? Why are so many young men and women crippled (socially and emotionally) in the adult world?
The answer may be simple, but the solution is complex. The young man’s parents, teachers, and coaches may have done a fine job of protecting and providing, but they did not prepare the child for adulthood. The solution is not so simple. HOW do you prepare a child to succeed on his or her own? (The following is not a comprehensive list)
Be a Role Model: Parents in particular are responsible to raise their children in a manner that gives their child(ren) the greatest chance of success as an independent adult. Teachers, coaches, and youth group leaders can be very influential too, but ultimately it is the parent(s) who are the greatest influence, for better or worse. The parents need to be the problem-solving, resilient role models who tackle life effectively. That is the primary curriculum for teaching independence; it’s what kids actually do and remember the most. The apple just doesn’t fall too far from the tree. So, parents need to be praying for divine help in this, since it’s the most challenging aspect of being mom or dad: “Teach my children, Lord, to value work and to work at it with all their heart (Col. 3:23)… Help my children acquire a life of self-discipline and wisdom, doing what is right, rather than just what is easy (Prov. 1:3)… May they learn responsibility and the value of carrying their own load, so that they can ultimately help others less fortunate than themselves. (Gal. 6:5) AND in addition to praying, parents have to do their best to show their children how to handle life’s challenges without panic. They need to openly discuss risk-management with kids, showing them that there are risks and dangers worth taking. Parents don’t need to be perfect, but they do need to show their kids the way to live as best they can and discuss it along the way. (Deut 6:7) Kids need to see and hear their parents doing hard things, persevering, and being resilient.
Widen the Boundaries as They Grow: Infants and toddlers need the most number and intensity of boundaries, however young adults (18+) should not need any outside boundaries. The trick is how to lead them from infancy to independence.
Let’s think of it from a spatial perspective.
- Infants are bound by every sort of protective boundary imaginable – car seats, strollers, cribs, high diapers, and umbrellas. They are in a cocoon.
- Toddlers are given slightly larger spaces to roam – one room at a time, low fences at doorways, bigger car seats, taller chairs, booster seats, etc.
- Young children can roam the house and yard, go to school, get things from the fridge, play with friends on their own, etc.
- Preteens can ride their bikes around the neighborhood, sleep over at friends’ houses, swim at the pool on their own, go to summer camps, get their own books from the library, do homework independently, etc.
- Older teens can get a job, drive themselves around town, and may even be given the freedom to go on a long road trip with a friend.
In the same way that their physical space increases as they grow up, so should their personal freedoms and responsibilities. Conversely, if they abuse their freedoms and prove themselves to be irresponsible, then it is the duty of the parent(s) to reign in those boundaries (physical and personal), until success is achieved, at which point the boundaries are loosened again.
It is not easy to know exactly how much to loosen the boundaries, since the involved parent has dozens of little decisions per day related to boundaries for kids, and if there are a lot of kids in the house, then it’s hundreds of decisions per day. To name a few: Do we buy the Nintendo Wii for Christmas for our 8 year old boy? Do we let our 10 year old girl wear makeup and pierce her ears? Is this movie okay for my 6, 9, and 14 year old to watch tonight? Is my 9 year old ready for two weeks away at summer camp? Is it time to talk about sex with my 11 year old, and what exactly do I say? Is it okay for my 13 year old to have a girlfriend and go on a date to see the new Twilight movie? Do we want out 16 year old daughter to have a car of her own? Should we let our 17 year old drive with his two buddies to visit a college five hours away?
How do you make those decisions? It requires wisdom, and wisdom comes from God through research, prayer, fellowship, and experience. There is no easy way to get it, but it can be had over time, with mistakes made along the way.
Relationship is Everything: Certainly, we want to avoid being the angry, legalistic drill sergeant, and we want to avoid being the spoiling, coddling enabler. Avoiding the extremes is essential. Well, here’s an axiom that deserves reciting everyday: “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” You can set all the right boundaries according to child development experts, but it’s all for naught, if you lose your relationship with your child. It’s essential that through it all, your child knows that you are not the enemy, you are the parent, and that you love them no matter what.
The relationship between parent and child is the foundation of love upon which everything is built, while the rules are the walls of protection. Both are essential. For more on this issue, go to this article.
Give Them Real Work. Yes, give them real responsibilities, as much as possible, so they get the sense that they are important, and that their good work is greatly valued by real people (and that shoddy or incomplete work is a problem for real people). Give them some things every day to do around the house that are legitimately helpful to others, and then reward them for sticking with their task and doing a good job. “Kids need to be given responsibilities in the family that they can claim and make happen without parental badgering. It builds a sense of value and belonging.” (Mark Gregston) https://growingupwell.org/2010/05/28/kid-should-contribute/
In conclusion, it’s pretty easy to protect and provide for kids. You keep them physically safe, give them an abundance of fun things to do, and they grow on up easily. That’s the American way. But the better way is to prepare kids for independence, but that is a much harder task. As they develop, we should slowly reduce the protection and provision, while increasing the preparation.
“We also owe them a certain amount of wisdom as they grow. It’s not our job to protect them so completely that they grow up without knowing disappointment, pain, fear, or frustration. It is our job to run interference when necessary in a sane and age-appropriate manner… And above all, it’s our job to help them learn the lessons – even the slightly painful ones – that will give them the skills, defenses, self-knowledge, and sense of humor to cope with a world that contains risks and is not under parental control.” (Klass)