By Becky Ahlberg
Parenting is not for the faint of heart—or those who can’t take the long view in life. Few things require more of a person—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—than parenting. Even in the best situations, parenting is stressful. It is full of emergencies, urgencies, inconsistencies, sleepless nights, second-guessing, and unending challenges! And to top it off, most people feel unprepared for the adventure!
But, oh what a ride! It is thrilling, joy-filled, stretching, enriching, humbling, exhilarating, and more, so much more.
But parenting is especially precarious for many today. The numbers paint an alarming picture. In 2012, 43 percent of the live births in the United States were to single mothers, and 70 percent of those children will live in poverty and instability. Those frightening statistics reflect the significant decline in stable families in our nation. The devastation of broken and dysfunctional families can be seen in every part of society, and probably in every church.
However, the growth—even promotion—of the helicopter parent syndrome that has swept middle-class America is just as frightening to me. Too many parents see their primary role as hovering over every aspect of their children’s lives. Parents who insert themselves into every detail of their child’s daily routine see it as good parenting—evidence that they are making their child a priority. Such parents make sure their child is in the right play group, school, athletic league, and study group. They structure every moment of every day to pack in as much stimulation as possible so their child can be successful.
The irony is that the more we cram into a child’s life—the more we make the decisions for every aspect of that life—the less successful the child is likely to be. Why? It’s because the child isn’t learning to make good choices and manage the consequences of those choices. The parents are making all such decisions. Hovering parents see themselves as advocating for their child or protecting him or her from the big, bad world. Hovering parents see it as important to intervene on behalf of their child, whether it be with an unreasonable teacher or unfair coach, or to settle a matter that is a natural consequence to their child’s choices.
Of course, every parent should be prudent and responsible for the welfare of his or her child. But when parents shield kids from suffering the consequences of their own choices, they short-circuit their children’s development into healthy, responsible adults.
Parents actually harm their kids when they try to protect them from navigating through the “life is not fair” waters, keep them from running into a few brick walls and picking themselves up, or shelter them from the faith-building crucible of doubt and disappointment. Far too many children are entering adulthood crippled and unprepared to face life’s realities because their parents never equipped them to handle life on their own.
I am not suggesting parents shouldn’t be involved in their child’s life. Children deserve and need our guidance. But a child cannot learn to ride a bicycle if the parent never lets go of the handlebars. Yes, some scary moments and a few scraped knees and elbows may result, but they are a small price to pay for the child’s thrill of going solo and experiencing a new measure of independence.
THIS is a parent’s job—a stewardship of preparation more than a strategy of protection. This is the reality we parents must realize: no matter how committed we are to protection, we can’t protect a child from life.
A Context, Not a Bubble
My husband and I raised three boys (and I never anticipated the sheer joy in later watching our children parent!); we had our fair share of stitches, broken bones, broken windows, holes in the wall, emergency room runs, bad grades, boneheaded choices, arguments over basketballs in the driveway, speeding tickets, girl troubles, heartbreaking losses, and breathtakingly difficult conversations about what it means to be a man—a godly man—in this culture. All of them were elements in the hard work of character building and preparation for independence that is the core of parenting.
I will never forget a conversation when one of our sons, then a high school senior, came home from school one day after a debate in his government class. At the time, Congress was considering possible impeachment of President Clinton for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The class had been discussing particulars of that case. Consensus among his classmates was that oral sex wasn’t really adultery, so what was the big deal?
He asked me what I thought. That was not a conversation I was expecting to have, but since he brought it up, I said, “Absolutely it is! As a matter of fact, I think if you have an inappropriate conversation over lunch with a woman who is not your wife, you’re walking on thin ice.”
“That’s a little extreme, isn’t it?” he responded.
“Baby,” I said, “the extreme opinion is thinking that adultery is simply about sexual behavior. Breaking the trust of marriage and thinking you can justify it is way out of bounds.”
We ended up having a 45-minute conversation about commitment and faithfulness, and it happened because he had been exposed to a debate topic I would have rather he hadn’t. But, my response was not to rail against his teacher or demand an investigation into the curriculum choices at the school; it was to help him put it in the proper perspective and help him navigate in a culture that has different priorities than God. News coverage about President Clinton’s behavior and impeachment was on every station and in every newspaper, so it could not be avoided. Our son would be leaving for college soon, and the conversation was part of my stewardship of preparation for him.
We do not help our children when we seek to minimize their exposure to the ugliness of the world. And, no, I would not have had that conversation about adultery with a 10-year-old, but kids today see and hear some pretty brutal stuff. While parents have some control over TV and technology choices at home, children are exposed to an amazing amount of ungodly influences every day.
I don’t believe putting children in a Christian bubble is the answer. Instead, building a Christian context in open and honest conversations gives children confidence and security that they can face the tough issues. We encouraged our boys to be leaders in the culture around them. They had varying levels of success through the years, but we kept our expectations high. We also made sure they understood the concept of consequences.
The Crucible of Choices and Consequences
Good choices and bad choices both have consequences. Part of the important stewardship of preparation is making sure your children are accountable for their choices. Making good choices is a direct result of understanding consequences; making good choices leads to healthy self-esteem. Accumulating the good consequences of good choices builds an amazing foundation for life. Learning from the painful consequences of bad choices also adds important bricks to that foundation.
It’s not pleasant to watch children suffer through difficult consequences, but the parent’s steady and sympathetic support while they work through the consequences is key to their ability to grow up. As counterintuitive as it may seem, failure can do a great deal to build self-esteem. The key is in how a person—and how his or her parents—responds to a failure and how it moves him or her forward.
When you rescue a child from the consequences of the child’s choices, this is the message it sends: “You are not capable of solving your own problems—I have to do that for you.” On the other hand, a parent who lovingly supports a child through tough consequences shows trust and confidence that the child can not only solve problems, but also can learn from them and grow. And it’s a perfect opportunity for the parent to share what he’s learned through his own experiences with failure.
A parent doesn’t improve a child’s self-esteem by telling the child how talented and wonderful he or she is. Instead, a child’s self-esteem improves when he or she displays some capabilities and begins to make good choices, and accomplishes things, and recovers from his or her own mistakes. Children who don’t learn to make responsible choices, and who look for someone or something to blame each time trouble comes, are headed for a life of heartache and disappointment.
There isn’t space in this article to thoroughly look at responsible and age-appropriate exposure to life’s difficult questions and circumstances. I want to believe most Christian parents will do the hard work to prepare children to be wise and purposeful, but I am concerned at the number of such parents who may choose to try to completely shield their children from the realities of life—whether it’s a preschooler who needs to learn to share, a 10-year-old who needs to learn how to win with grace and lose with dignity, or a teenager who needs confidence to say no to peer pressure.
Character building starts early, and godly character is countercultural in the truest sense of that word. We don’t build character in our children when we keep them from being exposed to the world; we build character when we teach children to be in the world but not of the world . . . in the crucible of choices and consequences.
For those who are committed to raising godly children and passing on a legacy of faith, it is imperative we concentrate on preparing them for life, not protecting them from its harsh realities.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” And then he a quickly added, “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul understood it too; every day we and our children can be encouraged by his words, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
Becky Ahlberg serves as executive director of My Safe Harbor, worship minister with Anaheim (California) First Christian Church, and a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.