In a recent post, I spoke about the necessity of understanding the nature and needs of children in order to be an effective parent. I said that children are naturally self-centered and foolish, a description that sounds harsh to modern ears. I would be the last person (I promise!) to encourage people to be unkind to their children; I know that serious damage can be done by being insensitive to children, forgetting their vulnerability. It is vital that we listen to them, remember what it was like to be a child, and be gentle and loving in our dealings with them. But none of this changes the fact that children need to be led out of childishness, and that modern attitudes toward parenting and the cultural focus on youth have made this more difficult than it needs to be. Parents who are still struggling to see themselves as adults, who recoil at the idea of being perceived as old and uncool, or who forget that children are not capable of adult reasoning will have a tough time being effective parents.
I struggled with some of this myself, especially with viewing myself as “the adult.” I still thought of myself as an 18-year old, and it felt strange to be the grown-up; it felt kind of like I was pretending. It took me awhile to get into the groove of always being responsible for regular meals and nap schedules, and recognizing that my child needed me to lead instead of just reacting moment by moment to whatever happened. As I gradually got into a routine, and as we had more children, four tools began to emerge that I think you may find useful, too–tools that can help in the “construction project” of sorts that is parenting.
When my husband and I became parents, we experienced the same overwhelming sense of responsibility that most young parents do. As we thought about and discussed the future, we began to see pretty clearly that we had some strong ideas regarding the things we wanted our children to carry with them into adulthood. We knew that, for us, it wouldn’t be enough just to keep our kids physically safe, off drugs, and not pregnant. We wanted them to be prepared to make wise decisions about relationships, money, work, and everything else. We wanted them to love things that are worth loving and have the sense to avoid chasing fantasies, while at the same time encouraging them to ponder greatness and think Big Thoughts. Although we didn’t call it this, it became our family vision, and we continued to discuss and clarify it over time.
We realized that in order to achieve this vision, we’d have to be intentional in the way we lived and interacted with our children. As we planned how we would handle finances, meals, schools, vacations, chores, family traditions, and free time, we found that more and more we were basing our decisions on our vision, and a cohesive structure began to emerge in our family–an identity that was uniquely our own. This sense of identity forged strong bonds within our family, giving our children their own sense of purpose and belonging. It was kind of like laying the foundation for a great house.
Every family has to make decisions about what they do and how they do it. Thinking through your goals and articulating a vision for your family is a process that can clarify a lot of these decisions, and help your family develop its own identity. You may modify your vision through the years, but thinking ahead and setting priorities based on your vision is a powerful tool.
A good leader isn’t necessarily the smartest one, the one who knows everything, or someone who always does the right thing; the leader is the one who knows where he’s going and unhesitatingly says , “Follow me!” Young parents often fear making the “wrong” decision, but the fact of the matter is, your child just needs you to be decisive–they need someone to follow! Most of the time, the decisions you’re going to be making won’t be life-altering, so go with your first instinct–you don’t know everything, but you have far more knowledge, wisdom, and experience than your child. Also, you’re the one with the vision, remember? Hang on to that vision, and it will help you in every single decision you will make.
Remember, though: being a good leader often means you won’t be popular, but that’s not the point. Do you remember your child’s nature? He can’t reason at an adult level, and he doesn’t know what’s good for him–he needs you to train and teach him, not by trying to persuade him, bribe him, nag him or cajole him, but by telling him what to do and expecting him to do it.
Here are a few “leadership phrases” I found myself using quite often:
You don’t have to like it, you just have to eat it.
I wouldn’t like that decision either, if I were you.
Go find something to do, or I’ll find something for you to do.
Turn it off. It’s not worth watching.
If it’s not clean, you aren’t finished.
Because I said so.
You will undoubtedly come up with your own phrases, but whatever you do, don’t expect your child to like your decisions. Nobody likes to be told “no”, but it’s part of the job of being a leader. If you decide to give a reason, just remember, if he doesn’t like the decision, he’s not going to agree with the reason. Be firm. You’re laying a foundation for that great structure, remember?
Solidarity is becoming harder and harder to come by. In the past, most grown-ups shared an understanding of the nature and needs of children; everyone understood the inborn foolishness of children, and it was understood that they needed adults–all the adults they would encounter– to correct and guide them.
Children were taught, implicitly and explicitly, that rules and laws were to be respected and obeyed, and that adults, who obeyed the rules and laws, were to be respected and obeyed. Adults were in solidarity with one another, jointly committed to the civilizing of children and instructing them in how to behave as adults.
Now it’s not uncommon for parents to openly challenge school rules in the presence of their children, challenge teachers for grades received by their children, and challenge administrators for punishing their children for misbehavior, claiming, “My child would never ________!”. Parents are on the defensive, and everybody has an opinion about how things “should” be run; they’re on the lookout for victimization and mistreatment in the smallest things. This really ought not to be! As adults, we need to recognize that we’re all on the same side; we should be committed to instilling in our children a respect for those in legitimate authority, and a willingness to admit wrongdoing, rather than automatically going into defense mode, assuming those in charge are out to harm our kids. We should be allies, not adversaries.
Here’s what solidarity looks like:
You remind your child to obey other parents and the teacher while on field trips.
You give your spouse, the teacher, the administrator, or another parent the benefit of the doubt.
You back the decisions of your spouse, the teacher, the principal, or another parent, and discuss any concerns only privately–never in the presence of your child.
You don’t contradict your spouse, etc., or argue with other adults in front of your child.
This obviously places upon the parent the responsibility of choosing friends, schools, coaches, etc. wisely; find like-minded people and institutions, and never allow your child to go on an outing with an irresponsible adult.
The last tool for grown-up parenting is faith. I’m not talking about a particular brand of religion, nor am I speaking of faith for a particular outcome, but faith in God–faith that he knows and loves your child more than you do, and that he will work everything for our good and his glory. When you think of your own life and the things you’ve gone through, you will often realize that it’s been the most difficult things that have been the most significant in forming your character and helping you to grow up. Don’t deny your child the same opportunity by trying to shelter him from hard things.
Regardless of your religion, you must trust that difficult things aren’t necessarily bad things. Remind yourself of the lives of great people who’ve suffered incredible difficulties and emerged stronger for them. No one wants to see her child suffer, and it’s hard to see him struggle even over small things like losing a game or making a low grade on an assignment. But in order for your child to grow up, he has to go through them, and you have to show him how. Step back when you feel yourself rushing to your child’s rescue, trying to intervene and protect him from difficulty; try to see the bigger picture.
If you don’t have a vision that gives identity and purpose to your family, develop one. Step up and lead your child with confidence–you will probably blow it every now and then, or even fairly often, but just apologize and move on. Find like-minded adults to be your allies in the project of bringing your child to maturity, and stand in solidarity with them. And have faith–you may be able to help your child avoid some of the mistakes you’ve made, but let him face difficulties and trials of his own, so he can have his own stories to tell! Don’t let parenting overwhelm you–pick up your tools, and step out with confidence!