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What One Thing… pt 2

January 9, 2020

Last time ( I wrote about what I think is the One Thing, after having a personal relationship with Jesus, that you want your kids to leave home with when they launch into the big, bad world. For me, it’s the ability to make good decisions for themselves.

A quick recap on this is that building responsibility muscles through the use of household chores is a doorway to learning how to make good decisions. I focused on young children with this. There’s so much more than just doing chores that comes into this, though. There’s the developmental capabilities of your child. There’s the unique gifts and personality God has given them. There’s their Love Language. And probably about a hundred other things.

This time I want to focus on the fact that whatever a parent does for the child that the child is capable of doing for themselves actually steals an opportunity for growth from both the child and themselves.

I came across an article about Lawnmower Parents that relates to this. I bet you know a Lawnmower Parent. If you’re a teacher or a youth worker or a pastor, I bet you deal with them regularly…

This quote from the article caught my eye and so fits with my experience as a youth minister, family minister, care pastor and now a counselor. “Lawnmower parents go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent their child from having to face adversity, struggle, or failure. Instead of preparing children for challenges, they mow obstacles down so kids won’t experience them in the first place.”

Sometimes well-meaning parents unintentionally rob their children of growth and development by lawn-mowing (the metaphorical kind). They take decision making out of their kids’ hands in an effort to protect them from any of the adversity that might come from their kids’ decisions. It seems like a loving thing to try to protect your kids from failure and struggle. IT’S NOT. You love them, and you don’t want them to be hurt. Protecting them seems loving and caring. But struggle and failure are two of the best teachers in life. Without them, we end up weak, dis-empowered, victimized by circumstances.

OK. I get that there are times for me to step away. So how do you decide when to step away and when to step in? How do you know what you should protect your kids from, and what you shouldn’t protect them from? If I had the absolute final answer to this, and could give it to you in a simple nugget, I could possibly become as rich as Bill Gates. Every parent who wants their kids to grow up into independence, and then to mature interdependence, wants to know how you do this. Unfortunately (well, maybe not so unfortunately, actually), there’s no easy pat answer or formula.

Back in part 1 of this, I wrote, “Never do for your kids what they can do for themselves.” I learned this when I was a Youth Minister, many years ago. I discovered that it’s one of the best things I could do do help raise responsible kids (who grew up to be amazing superstars, by the way). It’s the starting gate for giving your kids what they need to be able to make good decisions for themselves. But you can’t observe this axiom if you don’t know your kids well. You have to know what your kids are capable of doing in order to not do for them what they can do for themselves. This is the central and most important thing about knowing when to step in and when to step away. You have to be a student of your kid(s) to have a sense of when and how to do this. You have to know your kids.

Start small. Start by giving your kids small choices to make. When they’re in preschool, giving them choices for what clothes they’ll wear is a great place to start. Don’t just throw open the closet doors and chest drawers and say, “Wear what you want.” Give them two or three choices (everything after three choices is just white noise), and then let them choose. It’s a small thing that will help your kids learn how to choose, but gives you a good amount of control over the outcomes.

As they grow, though, you’ve got to widen the scope of the things your kids can choose for themselves. Don’t try to engineer all these decisions, or you’ll find they will begin to choose what you don’t want them to choose, even if they tell you they’re going to do what you want them to do. They’re kids, but they’re not stupid, after all. And it’s incredible how creative kids can be in doing what you don’t want them to do.

By the time they’re an adolescent, all things being equal (which they rarely are…), they’re ready to make more and more decisions without your close supervision. If they’ve been making decisions since they were in preschool, they’ll understand the process, and with some more practice, they’ll be capable, at least, of making good decisions. They won’t have a 100% rate of good decision-making, but you don’t either, so don’t get on their case too quickly about it.

During this time (their adolescence) help them process the consequences associated with the choices they make. Essentially every choice carries a consequence. Some consequences don’t show up immediately, though. These are the ones you’ll need to help your teenager process. They need help with looking down the trail.

I believe the best way to do this is Socratically. In other words, do this by asking questions more than giving answers. Don’t just tell your teen what you know the consequence will be. Guide them to see the consequences by asking them questions. It’s not a bad thing to leave them hanging, sometimes, when you realize they need to wrestle this down for themselves.

This may be the most important thing I know about teaching kids how to make decisions for themselves: LET THEM OWN IT. By this, I mean, let them experience the consequences of their decisions, good or not so good. Let them celebrate (and celebrate with them) when they get the consequences of a good choice. Be careful, though, not to celebrate just the fact that they make a good decision. Affirm them for what you can see is a good decision, but this isn’t the moment to throw a party. When the good consequences come because of the good choice, that’s when you want to celebrate. That’s when it will mean the most to your kid.

The other side of this coin is less bright. When the choice isn’t good and the not-good consequences come home to roost, LET THEM OWN IT. Don’t bail them out of the negative consequences. How else will they learn how to deal with life when it gets big and bad? Let them own these.

Don’t re-punish them. Negative consequences are their own punishment. When negative consequences come, this is the time for discipline. This is the time to do a debrief and help your kid figure out where the train left the track. This is the time to help them figure out what they would do differently next time (because chances are there will be a next time). Again, don’t tell them what they should have done. Thoughtfully and carefully (and prayerfully, too) ask them questions that can help them process through to what didn’t work and why, and then to what they would do differently next time.

Ideally, you want to build a history with your kids that will make them feel safe enough to do this kind of debrief. Instead of being afraid you’ll judge or hurt them when they fail, you want them to feel safe to let you (or even ask you to) help them figure out the consequences/choice convergence.

You can see there’s no straight line between you wanting your kids to be able to make good decisions for themselves, and them doing it. The best news I have about this is that God wants to be your partner in this. He wants you and your kids to succeed at this. So ask for divine help, and then lean into the partnership.

From → Parenting

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