Did you know that letting go, as a parent, starts with your child’s birth? Whaaat? I thought letting go started when our child left home for college or to otherwise start their adult life. Well, that’s a big one, for sure. But there are everyday ones of less significance that go way back to your child’s birth.
It’s 2 AM. Little Joey was fed by his mom at 12 midnight, and yet he is up awake in his bassinette just two hours later. What to do? First, distinguish that crying sound. Is that a “feed me” cry? An “I’m poopy” cry? An “I want your attention” cry? Some cries require immediate parental attention, others not so much. Crying babies who want mama’s attention may be better soothed by learning how to self-comfort themselves back to sleep, within reason. An early version of parental letting go.
Allyson comes to her mom while she is making dinner. She just stands there for a moment, looking at her mom. “What?” mom exclaims. Allyson bats her eyelashes, pauses, and links her arm in her mom’s.
“Brandee and I were wondering if we could go to the concert downtown this weekend. A whole bunch of us are going. It’ll be fun. Pleeeease!”
Mom is making an effort to give her 16 year old daughter some space. Allyson is an A student, plays on the school field hockey team, and rarely gives them trouble. But, downtown is a scary place. There are bad places where drug deals are common and a lot of bars where trouble can be found.. Can mom trust Allyson to make good decisions and be safe? The answer is yes, and no.
If mom gives her daughter a blanket “okay,” with no guidelines, that’s too much letting go. While getting grown, Allyson does not have enough experience with responsibility and safety to navigate those troubled waters.
If mom says “okay,” but gives strict, safe guidelines and words of caution, then that gives her daughter an opportunity to get the experience she needs to become a fully functioning, responsible, independent adult. However, instead of giving her the checklist, make it a teachable moment. Engage your daughter in a discussion about what needs to happen for her fun excursion to be safe. Then help Allyson come up with guidelines such as, make sure you have a full tank of gas, park in the arena parking lot, stay together as a group, no side trips or after concert activities, keep your cell phone charged and on, and check back with me several times, and be home by curfew.
This type of teachable moment demonstrates the parent exercising the “Principle of Responsible Freedom” with the teen. That is, you give your teen as much freedom as they exercise responsibility. If they become irresponsible, you pull back on the freedom until your trust level returns.
Letting go is the most critical part of healthy, effective parenting. Through God’s grace and our hard work, we can convey the principle of responsible freedom to our children and help them practice being a functional adult, while they are still under our authority.
In the Bible, Proverbs 22:6 tells us to “raise our children in the ways of the Lord so that, when they grow old, they will not depart from Him.” As parents, that’s quite a tall order. Research shows that 80% of churched 16 year olds leave the church. These are kids who grew up attending their church at least twice per month, including Sunday School, youth groups, vacation Bible camps. What? 80% of these hardcore churched teens leave the church at 16? What have we done wrong?
Well, the rest of the story is that 80% of these departures actually return to church by the time they are 25 or by the second birthday of their first-born child. Why is that?
When our normal, healthy teens go through adolescence, they question everything, even going to church. Once they find themselves and achieve identity integration, they get back to their strong, deep roots in the church. If we are lucky, they will tell us “thanks,” but don’t count on it. So, the lesson is to hang in there when your teen goes through their personal wilderness experience.
As our kids develop, we spend a lot of time doing with and doing for them. How do you know when to do which?
Five year old Billy throws his sneaker at his mom and yells at her, “Mooom, haven’t you heard of Velcro?” He has been unsuccessful in tying his lace sneaks.
Dutifully, mom puts down her laundry basket, walks to Billy, kneels down beside him and cradles him. “It’s frustrating trying to learn new things, huh?”
Billy pushes out of her cuddle, retrieves his sneaker, and demands, “Do this for me!” Mom puts the sneaker on his foot, pauses, and concludes, “You know what? I think you can figure this one out. Why don’t you give it a try.”
What a great example of active listening. Mom could have punished Billy for his outburst and disrespect, but that wouldn’t have gotten his shoe tied. She used her active listening to lower his emotional fever and then re-directed him to task.
However, this well-intentioned parenting likely would end with more frustration by Billy and a greater outburst. Developmentally, at age 5, Billy doesn’t have the mental capacity to “figure this one out.” At Billy’s age, mom is wise to use what I call “hands-on parenting.” First, she does for Billy, and then, as he calms down and shows interest, she takes time to patiently teach Billy a new skill, in this case, tying his own shoes.
From ages 6 to 12, parents use “directive parenting,” where your youngster has the freedom to explore his world, but with your supervision and oversight. Here, we are also doing for our children, as they are learning the ropes of safety, sharing, and responsibility
From ages 13 to 18, parents begin to use “advice-based parenting,” which further expands their exploration, but with your sharing the wisdom of your experience. Here, we move more away from doing for and toward doing with.
After age 19, as your teen is launched into adulthood, we shift to “consultative parenting.” Your lead comment is, “I have some thoughts about what you are going through, son. Do you want to hear them?”
Through all of these parenting stages, active listening helps your child get where they need to go. Through active listening, we empower, enhance, enable, and engage our children to succeed in life.
“Come on, Sweetheart. It’s time to get in the car. We’re getting ready to go home.” Mama nudged 6-year old Ella toward the backseat car door. Older sister Mia had already gotten in and buckled up. The grown-ups were hugging their goodbyes. Ella, however, caught an attitude.
“I don’t want to go,” she declared, stomping her foot for emphasis. She crossed her arms and looked up at her mom defiantly.
In such situations, mom is at a crossroads. She can choose power, or she can choose relationship. She can go big, or she can go small. Her choices will likely calm or multiply the drama.
One option, choose power and go big. Mom took a breath, standing tall over her youngster. “Young lady, I don’t have time for this. Get in the car.”
Now, mom is within her rights to respond this way, but at what cost? Ella could meet the challenge, digging her heels in and silently giving her mom “the eye.” This response would up the ante for mom in a battle she would win. Mom could then double down with, “and I mean right now!” Ella could cave, begin tearing up, and slowly get in the car. Or, Ella could stand her ground, whereupon mom would have to physically get her in the car. She chooses power, wins, but in reality everybody loses.
Another option, choose relationship by taking the time to address Ella’s feeling and giving her options. After Ella declared she didn’t want to go, mom could take a breath, kneel down so that she could talk to her daughter eye-to-eye, and active listen until Ella’s emotional fever begins to go down.
“Aw, Baby. You really want to stay longer with your Nana and Papa.” Ella’s shoulders loosen as she nods her answer. “It’s not fair that we have to leave so soon. It seems like we just got here, huh?” Ella reaches out to put her arms around her mom’s neck and gets tearful.
Mom concludes that Ella’s feeling have been soothed and she switches to giving options. “You know, baby, I have some ideas about how we can handle this. Do you want to hear them?”
Asking permission from your child to speak is a highlight of any child’s life and usually leads to effective problem-solving. Ella agrees and mom continues, “Since it’s getting late and it will be your bedtime when we get home, I bet you could text your Nana from the car to tell her what fun you had visiting. Tell her your best part of the visit. Then, you guys can talk about when it would be okay for you to have a sleepover. Sound like a plan?”
Choosing power is always quicker, but at the expense of a close relationship with your child. When she is being stubborn, for any reason, choose relationship, lowering her emotional fever with active listening and then getting permission to offer some solutions that work for all.
Are chores by family members a good thing? Oh, yeah. They are not only a good thing, they are essential to family functioning and provide a sense of pride, responsibility, and accountability for all.
Ella is 18 months old. Older sister Jade is 5 and oldest brother Nate is 8. Some parents would give Ella a pass at her age regarding pitching in with chore completion. Not me. When children developmentally gain eye/hand coordination, depth perception, and gross motor control, they have the necessary skills to begin pitching in.
At first, of course, mom or dad need to help Ella put her stuffed animals in the toy box. Show her how, ask her to show you how. If she hesitates, make it a challenge with good ol’ reverse psychology, “I betcha can’t put that teddy in the toy box.” Then move to you put one away and then she puts one away. Then move to a challenging time frame. “I bet you can’t get all of these toys off your floor and in your toy box by the time I count ten.” Of course, heap on praise with success.
Jade is old enough to add emptying all trashcans to her list of chores. Approach her from a “big girl” perspective and that trash duty is her part of keeping the house neat and clean as a family.
Nate has already learned to try putting his chores off. “I’ll do it in a while…Let me finish this first…Joey wants me to come over and play. Can I do my chores after I get back?” The appropriate, healthy parent answers are “now,” “no,” and “no.”
All kids are more likely to accept their chore responsibilities if everyone is doing their part at the same time. Make Saturday morning’s family chore time. Put other activities contingent on chore completion first. If kids speed through their chores, check their quality and add a pitching in component to chores so that, helping out with others after completing your own is part of the family task.
Some parents attach monetary value to chore completion as incentive. I discourage that tactic, as it promotes divisiveness and expediency, while detracting from pride, cohesion, and family values. However, if kids want to propose contracts for non-chore jobs, such as grass-cutting, babysitting and the like, then I’m all for such initiative.
Some parents don’t want the hassle of kid complaining, dragging their feet, starting fights or other distractions from the task at hand. There is always resistance to something new. Use your active listening tools, get permission to give them your rationale, and make chore assignments a part of an initial family meeting to set the process up. Get feedback and give kids chore options, depending on age. Doing chores is not an option, but what you do as your chores can be negotiated.
Are chores a part of healthy family life? Oh, yeah. They build character, responsibility, pride, and family togetherness. Go for it.