Isn’t technology wonderful? When I was a boy if I wanted to change the channel on the TV, I had to get up and go the TV. Now, all we do is point a remote in the general direction of the TV, press a button and change the channel. It is easy.
Then I began thinking how nice it would be if someone would invent a remote for our children. After all, with our life experience and wisdom, we know what is best for them if we could just get them to listen and follow our good council. How nice to have a remote in hand and send commands to our children so they immediately stop whining, clean their rooms, do their homework, accept “no” for an answer, and thank us for being such good parents.
Of course, this isn’t the nature of our human experience. It fails to respect the self-responsibility or free will of our children and the fact that growth is an internal process and not something which can be imposed from without.
So, what is the goal or purpose of our parenting?
I want to give you my answer by sharing a story that goes back to when our children were very young. It was a Sunday afternoon and I’d just settled onto our bed with a book, hoping to do a little reading, maybe even nod off. Suddenly, I heard a commotion going on down the stairs. Melinda (six at the time) was chasing Jon (four) around the circle of our living room, kitchen, and dining room. Jon was giggling as he ran, with his sister in close pursuit shouting, “Give it back.”
I walked down the stairs. “What’s going on?” Without a word, they both darted past me and upstairs to their rooms. Back upstairs I knelt and knocked on Jon’s door. “Jon, would you come out?” I waited a moment. The door opened a crack and Jon, a sheepish little grin on his face, peered up at me. I took his hand. “Come with me.” We walked down the hallway to Melinda’s door. I knocked and waited. I knocked again. “Melinda.” The door finally opened. I took her hand and gently pulled her into the hallway. “Will you guys tell me what’s happening?”
As you can imagine, Melinda spoke up. “Jon took my book.”
Jon quickly defended himself. “She wasn’t reading it. She never lets me use her things.”
I chuckled as each immediately blamed the other. Such a natural human response, a defense mechanism we all use so we can feel justified in our behavior and shift responsibility (blame) to someone else. No one wants to be found “at fault,” which not only has negative connotations but so often results in punishment.
Of course this is an old pattern. We even read about it in the Bible when God asked Adam if he had eaten of the forbidden fruit. He blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent.
I want to suggest that it’s hard to own up to our responsibility in life. Doing so requires a lot of emotional maturity, far more than I can expect from a four- and six-year-old worried about being in trouble with their dad. But, let’s pretend for a moment. If Jon were to accept responsibility, he’d say something like: “I was so bored. I’ve read all my books, so I thought I’d take a look at Melinda’s. Besides, it’s kind of fun to take her stuff and run. I get the biggest kick out of watching her get mad. Yup. I did it. I knowingly provoked her, Daddy.”
If Melinda accepted responsibility, she might say, “I have plenty of books. But sometimes I like to get mad at Jon. It’s fun to see him get in trouble. Besides, it feels kind of good to be the victim and have you or Mom come and rescue me.”
Were our children ready to take that level of responsibility? Of course not. Most adults don’t claim that much responsibility. Here we are, in our twenties, thirties, forties, or even sixties, succumbing to the tendency to make excuses, blame others, and shift responsibility from our shoulders to events, circumstances, and others.
I want to reiterate. Personal responsibility takes a lot of emotional maturity, including self-awareness, ability to manage our emotional reactions, confidence, and an ability to step outside our own skin and understand another’s point of view. Lessons not easy to learn.
Nevertheless, I wanted to interact with my children in ways that would plant seeds of responsibility even if they required time to take root and bear fruit. So, I kept talking. “What choices did you make, Jon?”
“Dad, not me, it was Melinda.”
“I know, I know. It was her. But did you make any choices?”
He looked down. “I guess.”
“I took her book and ran.”
“How do you think she felt about that?” I persisted.
“Yup,” I said. “Is that what you wanted?” He was quiet. “What choices did you make, Melinda?”
“Dad, it wasn’t me, it was Jon.”
“I know. But did you make any choices?”
“I chased him and yelled at him.”
I continued asking questions. “Were there other choices you each could have made? What will happen if the two of you keep fighting? Is that what you want? Jon, what can you do? Melinda, what can you do?”
We could only have this discussion because I was not in a punishing mood. I was in a good place emotionally and had not been “hooked” by the kids’ little hullabaloo. In fact, it’s impossible to teach responsibility if we’re not living from personal responsibility.
I also need to state that I was not so much interested in solving this problem as helping my kids begin to think more deeply and develop more of a sense of ownership/responsibility for their reactions and behavior, something which is impossible in a reactive, emotional climate.
I share this story not to give you a technique but rather to offer you a different perspective. (In fact, we too often over-reason with young children.) I share it to help you see that my purpose as a parent is to help my children take responsibility or claim ownership of their lives.
What does that mean? Ownership of what? Ownership of their feelings, thoughts, behavior, attitudes, choices, values, desires, decisions, relationships, grades, time, room, nutrition, etc. You name it. This, of course, does not happen overnight. It doesn’t happen from one conversation, especially with young children. It happens over time as we shift our perspective from “fixing problems” to “growing children.”
As a parent, I want to interact and communicate with my children in ways that help them learn to think deeply, take ownership, solve their own problems, and make good decisions. I’m no longer imposing control from without. I’m standing at their side, loving and guiding them as they learn to navigate their way in a challenging world.
This notion changes the paradigm of parenting. It means we have to stop being responsible for our children and instead interact with them in ways that allow them to be responsible for themselves.
Perhaps the best way I can describe this is with the analogy of a flower. Have you ever watched a flower blossom? Have you ever tried to force a flower to blossom? What happens if you pull those petals apart?
What are the implications for parenting? We cannot force our children to blossom. We can only create a nurturing environment in which that can occur. We are gardeners and not mechanics.
When a child is born, she is totally dependent upon her parents for all her needs. As she grows older, she begins to develop more autonomy and capability. By the time she’s ready to leave home, we want her to be responsible and emotionally mature enough to make it on her own, to be positively self-governing. The art of parenting is guiding this process of growth into self-responsibility.
Accepting responsibility and developing emotional maturity means our children learn to:
• Know of their goodness and worth
• Feel safe enough to talk
• Delay gratification and tolerate frustration
• Act rather than react
• Solve problems and make good decisions
• Set and work toward goals
• Make and keep commitments
• Act from a moral and spiritual compass
• Respect and cooperate with others
The implications of understanding this purpose are enormous. It helps us stop reacting so we can figure out a better way to respond. It invites us to focus less on our children and more on ourselves—our thoughts, actions, and communication—and how these influence our children. It invites us to trust the natural growth and development of our children. It invites our children to think for themselves, solve their own problems, and take responsibility for their decisions. We don’t click a remote to make this happen. We don’t do it through force. It is a process that occurs gradually as we focus on building loving relationships and a nurturing environment in which our children learn to take ownership of their lives.
Most of us make two mistakes in our parenting. One is we over manage our children by controlling, directing, lecturing, reminding, nagging, and so on. There are many ways we do this. In essence, we fail to trust our children and so we impose control from without in ways that weaken them in the long run. Second, we overindulge our children by sympathizing, giving in, catering, rescuing, fixing, or otherwise trying to protect them from the difficulties of life. Again, we fail to trust them to handle the difficulties and challenges of life and either neglect to set good boundaries (which would upset them) or we step in and do for them what they can learn to do for themselves. Whichever of these strategies we use, we make ourselves overly responsible and deprive our children of valuable opportunities to learn and grow.
A few weeks back I let you know of my new book and a 50-module, video-based, online parenting program entitled Raising Responsible, Emotionally Mature Children. Both are available on my webpage. During the introduction of the online program, I’ve offered it at the low price of $29. I’ll be leaving it at this introductory price for one more week. Buy it now and get the discount.