Confident Parenting and the Church (Part 2): Building Responsibility- Not Dependence

Guest ColumnistCommunity News

by Children’s Ministries Pastoral Staff

The first Community News article on “Confident Parenting and the Church” (September 2013) addressed the pervasive element of fear, one factor that erodes confidence in parenting. We acknowledged the obvious truth that there is a lot to be afraid of in this troubled world of ours. We, however, hopefully pointed out that our fear can direct us in ways to meet God in the midst of the difficulties in life and not be paralyzed by fear. This month, we want to address a second area where it is difficult to have confidence in parenting: that of letting your child go into this troubled world.

Ann Tiemann, editor of Courageous Parents, Confident Kidswrites, Often, our identity and self-worth comes from our role as (parents), which is wonderful—but it can be a problem if you’re not ready for kids to go do what they need to do. A case in point is a recent study which found that kids of parents who hover excessively may be more anxious, vulnerable, and closed-minded than kids who are given more freedom and responsibility. This doesn’t sound like a goal any parent sets for their children, much less an aim of a parent who desires to guide their children toward freedom in Christ. In truth, it is often our own needs, not the troubled world, which is the problem in our being able to let go.

An example of this is what we encounter early in parenting in the bonding experience. Attachment to the inherently needy infant/child that enters our lives can be one of the more profound emotional watersheds in our adult lives. Though this essential bonding is critical for a child’s emotional health, their emotional maturity is predicated on growing out of dependence on us. While we are right to attend to the importance of connecting with our child, we might do well even in these early stages to let our parenting also be shaped by the hopeful endpoint of healthy interdependence.

The challenges that come to us as our children grow in their ability to make their own choices allow us to keep both our parenting role and their lives in perspective. There are developmentally-appropriate stages of letting go but they all eventually end up at this point: We can either help our children recognize the value and importance of their power to choose or we can undermine their growth by seeking to choose for them. We can either hover so close that our children don’t have to grow in the area of making good choices or we can release them in developmentally appropriate increments that allows them to blossom into responsible adults. The tragedy today is that many adults are still emotional children, putting the blame on everyone else for the results of their own choices. We have the opportunity to implement strategies to help our children learn responsibility through exercising choice or to learn to blame by denying them the opportunity to choose.

One particularly hard area for parents is that of public choices. This is a tough one because it touches our pride…but this is part of the problem. There are times when we are more concerned about what others think of us and our children than about addressing God’s desire for us to worship Him in Spirit and truth (John 4). We need to let our children learn from their mistakes, exercising the privilege of being Christ-like and demonstrating grace. We avoid distorting the truth about their poor choices, and also seek to avoid shaming.  The goal is that we can be both parents and a church community who focus on and model Christ’s redemptive grace rather than on protecting a comfortable reputation.

As we consider how to have confidence to let go of our children, we end up back at our own ability to choose. Are we taking responsibility for our own lives in the midst of teaching our children? Have we abdicated our own growth in the process of focusing on parenting, or are we still seeking to be responsible for our own lives first, then the lives of those we care for? Just as we are told in the public address on the airplane to use the oxygen mask ourselves first before helping our children use it, we might do well to focus on breathing in God’s grace ourselves so that we can help our children plug into His grace.

Some Ideas To Consider: 

•    Pursue your own relationship with God and pray for your own heart and mind as much as you pray for your children (we cannot disseminate a grace we are not acquainted with).

•    Ask God to help you cultivate personal habits based on a desire to please Him because you love Him, not just to demonstrate a good example for your children. Jesus said that we must take the log out of our eyes before helping our neighbor with his specks.

•    Equip your child with tools for making good choices and be there to catch them when they fall rather than trying to shelter them from making decisions. Child experts Drs. Karen Appleyard and Lisa Berlin at Duke University state that their goal is to, “Help parents understand that two of their principal responsibilities as a parent are to comfort their child and to facilitate their child’s exploration of the world.”

•    Cultivate a community of other parents who will encourage you to respect your child’s need to grow up and go out and still love them when the going gets rough.

Consider opportunities for your child to exercise age-appropriate independence at each developmental crossroad such as:

•    Leaving them in a safe nursery/childcare situation so they can cultivate trust in other adults (rather than their sense that they are only “safe” when Dad or Mom are around).

•    Letting them run around on the playground or park (while in view of you, of course).

•    Encouraging them to try classes or activities where they will be on their own. Let them be on someone else’s soccer team.

•    Discuss with your school-aged student how he/she plans to solve the problemof a poor report card (or poor behavior report, friendship woes, etc.) You can set boundaries and consequences in this. (e.g. You will lose the privilege to play a video game if you get another poor report card. Communicate that it will be their choice.)

•    Give them an alarm clock and teach them responsibility for getting up on time.

•    Letting them pack their own suitcase when they go to camp and feel the consequences for forgetting something.

•    Allow them to be driven by other (responsible and trustworthy) adults.

•    Lay out the requirements for college applications, suggest a trajectory, offer your help, and then let it go. Choose to let your child live their own life, not your dreams for them.

The famous, “Let the little children come to Me” story in the Gospels reflects the idea that Jesus wants children get a front row seat in His story (Luke 18:16, Mark 10:14, Matthew 19:13-15). In fact, He says that the children have something to teach US about the Gospel (Matthew 18:3). This is a wonderful reinforcement of the idea that children are to be respected, not sheltered. Indeed, the passages referenced would imply that we can parent without filtering or distorting the Good News in an effort to make it more acceptable to our children. Jesus is alive today and is able speak to our children just as He speaks to us. He desires that the little children get the chance to hear and choose to come to Him.

As Christians, we believe part of our identity as God’s creation is reflected by our ability to choose. As much as He intends for each of us to have family and to be part of the larger church family, He created us with the power to choose, as individuals, whether or not to accept His rightful place as our Father. This is indeed an invitation to us as parents to help our children to cultivate a sense of personal responsibility rather than dependence on anything other than God Himself.