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.
Sixteen year old Heather rushes into the kitchen one morning, harried and out of breath.
“Mama, can you please stop and iron my blouse. I want to wear this super cute outfit today, but I’m running out of time.”
Until recently, mom would have stopped fixing breakfast, taken the blouse from Heather, and then rushed to accommodate her frazzled daughter. Uh, why?
Several rationales come to mind. Let’s see. It’s what mothers do. I have to help her get out the door and get to school. I do a better job of ironing than she does. She’ll get upset at me if I don’t do it. Breakfast can be a little late today. I can make time…the list goes on.
Here’s the deal. None of these excuses have any merit. Being a nice and accommodating parent does not always translate into being a good parent. In fact, such accommodation can lead to Heather’s feeling entitled. That is, I can do what I want without consequences.
So, instead of “sure, honey. Let me get that for you,” mom sighs, takes a breath, and replies, “You know what, Heather? That’s not gonna work for me right now. I’m in the middle of putting breakfast on the table. How about you take the time yourself or maybe pick another outfit for today? Then you can iron what you need tonight for you to wear tomorrow without the rush.”
Wow! Can we do that as parents? In fact, yes. Actually, setting healthy boundaries for our children is an essential part of parenting. When you set boundaries, you convey self-respect, responsibility, value, and worth to your children. You also give them opportunity to take responsibility for themselves, accommodate, learn that actions have consequences, and plan ahead. Time crunches and crises are almost always self-induced.
Yes, you can say “no” and mean it. It’s freeing for you as a parent and it’s role modeling a critical quality of healthy relationships for your child. Setting healthy boundaries, active listening their upset and disappointment, and then helping your child adjust accordingly is a great teachable moment for all.
Everybody who never worries, raise your hand. If your hand is raised, sorry, but you’re lying. Everybody worries. The question is not do we worry, but what do we do with our worry.
Ben, age 13, has his first real crush. He thinks about Brittany all the time. He sits beside her in math class and dreams about talking to her, but he can’t. He thinks she’s out of his league because she’s one of the popular kids in school. He’s just, well, Ben.
On Saturday, Ben’s out doing errands with his dad. “Benjy, you seem preoccupied. Anything going on?” he asks while driving. Ben looks out his passenger window, sighs, “naw, I’m good,” he mutters.
“Well, it this is good, buddy, I’d be concerned about bad.”
Ben sighs again. “It’s just that, you know, girl problems.”
“Ahh, that’ll drive you crazy,” dad begins, “You know what I say? Forget about girls. Get your head around your athletics. That’ll bring the girls to you, ya know what I mean?”
Although well intentioned, dad’s comments probably drove Ben’s worry further underground. One of the cardinal rules of active listening, and major caution is this. Never offer unsolicited solutions. Even if you have the perfect solution to your child’s problems, it is yours, not his. The hidden message behind your solution is, “you are so stupid, incompetent, and not worth figuring it out, that I’m going to give you the answer.”
No parent would ever say that to their child…on purpose. With active listening, however, you are joining your child in their search for answers by helping them understand their feelings, rather than by giving solutions. When you note their emotional fever going down, you can ask, “I have some thoughts on what you’re going through. Do you want to hear them?” Children and teens alike love being asked permission before the parent talks.
Ben’s worry is real. Help him explore all the “what ifs” he is troubled over and turn them into “I wonders,” with a hoped for positive outcome. So, what if she doesn’t talk to me? Becomes, I wonder how the conversation will go when I talk to her? All worry comes from what if thoughts. I wonder thoughts generate curiosity, where you child can struggle with their own possible solutions. Even worrying can turn into a teachable moment for you and your child.
Okay, I admit it. I’m a Star Trek nut. Never had the series theme song as my ringtone, but I do like the lead-in…Space, the final frontier. For teens, having space and learning how to navigate it well, is their final frontier, on the boundary between adolescence and adulthood.
At 16, Alan was, well, Alan. He is tall, lanky, not particularly social nor athletic. He’s a computer gamer and he spends a lot of time in his bedroom watching YouTube videos and playing RPG’s with his friends. His role-playing friends are on-line. Each has the others back in the war games they play. Alan has only one friend in real life, his next door neighbor, Tommy, and they’ve known each other since they moved into the neighborhood when Tommy was 3 years old.
Alan is a B/C student, doing well in computer, math, and technology classes at school, not so well in English and history classes. His thumbs fly when he is texting, of course using the obligatory texting, emoji-laden short hand, but it is hard for him to turn in essay questions, book reports, or even stories that capture his imagination and gaming expertise. His teachers have tried everything to help motivate Alan to succeed in school.
So, the million dollar question. Is Alan’s story normal? Typical for his age group? As his parent, how do you check this out? How do you help him navigate to adulthood and successful, responsible, independent living?
Alan certainly wants his space, his own cocoon in his room. That, in and of itself is normal. Teens do these kinds of things on their journey of finding themselves. Establishing an individual identity is the developmental goal of adolescence. However, we all, also by nature, are social animals. Most folks have 1 or 2 best friends, with whom each is the other’s confidante, and a social network of 6 to 8 people, 2 or 4 couples as adults, with whom they frequently hang out.
To help the Alans of the world navigate adolescence to adulthood, several points come to mind. First, respect his need for space, but with some conditions. He must make an effort to emerge from his room for meals with the family, for school, and for other required appointments. Second, he must attend to responsibilities, such as homework, chores, errands and the like, before melting into his “space.”
Third, he must be willing to share his feelings with you at some level. Remember, kids don’t answer essay questions very well. So, when you get a shoulder shrug, look away, or silence in response, make your essay question a multiple choice question. You know your teen well enough to likely come up with a topic or area that’s troubling him. Use your active listening to help him flesh out his feelings and be available, on his request, to troubleshoot and advise.
Wanting space is not the teen problem. That’s normal. If they use that space to hole up, withdraw from social/family interaction, and push people away, then it’s a problem. With your kind assurance, healthy confrontation, and loving active listening, such problems can become teachable moments.
“But I want it,” little 3 yr. old Andy demanded, stomping his feet for emphasis. “Gimme right now.”
“That’s enough, young man,” huffed his mom, with hands on hips. “What part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?”
Andy darted past his mom in the kitchen, sweeping loose objects off the kitchen table as he went. He screamed, running through the house, catching his breath only to declare loudly, “You’re so mean.”… “You’re not my mommy.”… “I don’t love you anymore.”
Andy’s behavior is unacceptable, and he is out of control. Mom pulled the power and authority card, but this time to no avail. Now what do you do?
Even in the most stable, best of homes and environments, tantrum behavior from some children is inevitable. Sometimes it is embarrassing, especially when thrown with company around or in a public place, like the supermarket. Always, it is challenging when you child is demonstrating out-of-control behavior. When your power and authority falls flat, shift your focus from your authority to his feelings. Active listening is the go-to tool whenever your child demonstrates an emotional fever. Tantrum behavior counts.
Sometimes, thankfully rarely, some children up the ante by demonstrating safety or property issues. If they are in danger of harming themselves, you, or others, and if they start randomly throwing and breaking things, you might use what’s called a nurturing/holding procedure, or NHP.
The NHP is a physical restraint of your child against his will, with your assurance that you will only control him until he can control himself. Get ready. Kids will resist and attempt to get loose or turn on you by biting, kicking, pinching, and the like.
Hold him from behind, with your legs wrapped around his and your arms covering his. Keep your head back, to avoid his head-butting you. As calmly and with soothing voice as possible, tell him, “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry you are having such a bad time. Right now, you can’t control yourself. Ya know what? I’m going to continue controlling you so that you don’t hurt yourself, me, others, or break things. I love you so much that I’m going to do this for you as long as I need to. As soon as you show me you’ve calmed down and regained your control, I’ll let you go.
When your child realizes he can’t get loose, and you mean what you say, he will calm himself down. As you see measures of this, acknowledge them with assurances. Often, when this norm is established, all parents need to do subsequently is ask, “Now, Andy, do I need to hold you tight again?” Their memory kicks in and they calm down. After calming himself down, even a tantrum can become a teachable moment.
Your phone is ringing. The baby is crying. Your toddler just spilled his juice all over the floor. The clothes dryer is buzzing and you haven’t even put up the clean clothes from last night. Is your head exploding yet? Mine is.
Feeling overwhelmed can be a normal, common state for well-intentioned parents. My parents were never there for me, so I’m gonna put my all into being the best…parent…ever. My mom and dad sacrificed everything for us kids. That’s just what parents do. The Bible teaches me to be submissive to my husband and a servant to my kids, so that’s what I’m doing.
Wow! I’ve actually heard parents say these kinds of things to me. Again, well-intentioned, but a set-up for feeling perpetually overwhelmed. So, mom and dad, how can you get back on steady course for the right reasons?
First, recognize and use the pyramid of family relations. You are at the top of your relational pyramid. Above your pyramid is God. If you are not right with God, your relations with your spouse and family will be full of issues. Some parents build a prayer closet, literally, for time with the Lord. Others set aside 15 minutes per day for personal devotions. Jesus said, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Take Him at His word.
Second, as you take time for yourself, you make time for your spouse. Jesus also said, “Love one another as you love yourself.” Self-care makes quality other-care possible. Healthy diet, sufficient sleep, exercise all facilitate healthy interaction with your spouse. Setting aside couple devotional time as well sets the tone. Further down the pyramid are your children, extended family, and friends.
The keys to multi-tasking and balancing self-care with other-care are prioritizing, delegating and setting healthy boundaries. In assessing the tasks, hand your toddler paper towels to clean up his mess, as you go to the baby to soothe her tears. These are the immediate priorities. You don’t have to answer your phone until you have the time. Your phone stores the call and it will be there when you are not so frantic. If the buzzer on your dryer loops to recur intermittently, take a moment to shut it off after you settle the baby. Help your toddler clean up his mess, telling him what a big boy he is to get started without you.
With immediate crises averted, sit and take a breath. Life will go on. Got is good, and so are you. Later, with your spouse, in a family meeting, you can set healthy boundaries by compiling lists of house rules and individual chores. Delegate chores to children consistent with their ages, but everybody pitches in. Build “me” time into your schedule. If you wait for a good time to take care of yourself, it will never happen.
Is there any time during the day more important for kids than bedtime? I don’t think so. Actually, it’s not a time, but a process. It’s a one-on-one with a parent and parents can take turns. It’s a special time, with each child in the family having a separate, designated bed time. In family life, it’s a settle down time.
“Okay, sweetheart, at the end of this show, turn off the television and let’s get started going to bed.” Mom prompted 8 year old Bethany, giving her lead time to make the transition.
“But, mama, what about…?” Bethany began to protest, but her mom cut her off. “Uh, uh, uh. Don’t do this, darlin’. You know the rules.”
“Yes, Mama.” Bethany turned her attention back to the t.v. to squeeze every ounce out of her day before going to bed.
Well intentioned parents teach their children early to put themselves to bed. What??? And give up such quality time with your child?
Other parents let their child play, irritate their brother, watch t.v., or game on their iPad or computer until the very last minute. Why allow a child to ramp up right before trying to go to sleep?
Other parents tolerate an abundance of stall tactics from children who don’t want to go to sleep.
Settle down time with your child is a precious gift, both from you to her, but also from her to you. With both my kids as they grew up and now with my grandkids when I’m called to duty, I try to allow up to 30 minutes of settle down time with each child. That’s time for talking about our days, active listening, telling or reading stories, being playful and funny.
As settle down time is closing, especially if I notice my child stalling, I shift to a more proactive focus. With preschoolers, I talk about the snuggle bunny who helps children be still and be silent. Even hyperactive kids will fall asleep within 3 minutes if they are still and silent. My snuggle bunny is a glistening white bunny who likes to snuggle next to the small of your back. However, he will only stay there if you are completely still and silent. You can feel a warmth there that tells you he is there, but if you try to look, he will scoot away and you will never see him. What is settle down time? It’ time for T L C – talking, listening, and cuddling.