(Note: today's Christmas song post is below) With a child away at college, I have been thinking a great deal about my parenting style and what I would have done differently--and more importantly, what I will do differently with my subsequent children.
I've thought and thought and there are obviously times I wish I would have been more patient or loving, etc. But none of those things are really what I worry about when I think of his current situation.
f I could go back and do one thing differently, I would have allowed his life to be harder and I would have made sure he did more to work through his own problems while he was safely at home and I could guide him. But I would make sure that my wife and I did far less problem-solving.
Throughout human history, we have proved ourselves a remarkably resilient group of creatures. We have survived plagues and wars and all kind of terrible things. That is in collective terms--but it's true in individual terms as well. One can find any number of stories of people who faced really dire, truly tragic circumstances and not only survived, but ended up stronger--everything from terrible illnesses to being a POW, and so on.
Unpleasant as difficult experiences are, we all know that they end up being beneficial for us. In fact, from a moral, emotional, and spiritual point of view, we often respond better to adversity than we do to abundance, ease, and prosperity.
And yet, as parents, our first instinct is often to mitigate and cushion, to prevent or at least minimize the difficulties our children face--even when the difficulties are fairly minor.
The irony, is that this is perhaps the one way that we really can mess up our kids. I am convinced that this one thing is the key to children growing up to live healthy and happy and productive lives.
On a visceral level, as a parent, I do understand the impulse. We are hard-wired to want to protect our young. And that is good when we're talking about predators or busy streets or ingesting poison.
It is not good when we are talking about demerits or bad grades or playing time in little league sports, or, dare I say it, leading roles in the school play.
In these cases, the parental instinct to advocate for your child will not be good. In fact, it is usually going to do the child more harm than good. The child will, for the rest of his or her life, have to make their way through a difficult and challenging world. If we respond to every problem they have by trying to fix it or solve it, we remove their time to build up immunity and resiliency. We won't be able to protect them forever and they will eventually leave our nests. The question is whether they will be able to solve problems on their own, or whether the disappointments they face will be catastrophic to them and lead to paralysis.
More simply: our children will one day have to solve their own problems, without our aid. Do we want that first time to be when they are away from us and the problems are much more serious? Or, is it better to start early, when they are near us and can be guided--and the problems are fairly minor.
Simply put, I think most of us (myself included) see ourselves as our children's advocates and protectors. I submit that this is wrong (with some obvious exceptions). We should, I think, see ourselves as their coach, mentor and guide. We should teach them how to cross the river, not build a bridge for them. Or at least, we should have them labor alongside us while we mutually build a bridge. They will have many more rivers to cross and our bridge won't be easily moved and carried.
A good coach is not indifferent to his players and their well-being. He or she won't let them do things that will damage them or that dangerous. But he or she realizes that the job is not to make them feel good, or comfortable or make the sport easier--it is to help them win! To succeed.
Children are remarkably resilient. They will have broken hearts one moment and will then move right on with their lives within minutes or hours. They can cope with most of what we try to protect them from ( I would argue that they can cope far less adequately with cultural rot that surrounds them that we don't try to protect them from, but that's another post). However, if they grow soft and spoiled and learn to turn to us for protection from every consequence--that might literally ruin their life.
So, here's the homework I'm giving myself. I invited you to join, too. Don't intervene. Period. Force yourself to express sympathy and empathy and love. Help them work through ways to address the problem. But don't shoot an email off to the teacher or coach. If they get a demerit--even if you think it's unfair--they will live. And they will learn. If they get a bad grade--even if you think it's unfair--they will live. And learn. People will be unfair to them for the rest of their lives. They'll need to learn how to deal with it.
Now, if your child is about to be unfairly expelled or incarcerated, or their life or health are endangered--yeah, definitely speak up. But anything short of that, think long and carefully. Are the consequences so great that it's worth risking your child's ability to solve his or her own problems for the rest of their lives?
And now, I am off to swallow my own medicine.
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