This month was a big turning point for my wife and me: We officially became “empty nesters.” In contemplating this new stage in life, we began to reflect on the good (and sometimes not-so-good) experiences we had as parents, on the times in which our parenting skills were tested.
What’s interesting is that throughout the years of working with adults, I’ve seen a unique pattern when it comes to parenting. Many tend to “over-protect and over-connect,” two acts that can potentially limit their kids from maturing properly. In light of these findings, I offer five changes I’d make if I could parent over again.
5 changes I’d make if I could parent over again:
1. I would do less preventing and more preparing.
In our effort to ensure that our kids experience no major catastrophies in their childhood that could permanently damage their emotions, we find ourselves reminding them incessantly:
- Don’t forget your backpack.
- Don’t forget to take your meds.
- Don’t forget practice is at 4:00.
- Don’t forget your homework.
- Don’t forget your grandma’s birthday today.
Our goal is understandable. We want to prevent bad things from happening. When children are young, this is not only normal, it’s necessary. But by age 10, their brains have formed enough that they can (and should) take responsibility for many areas of their behavior. When we constantly remind them of important items, they tend to become dependent on others for things they should be taking ownership of themselves. We actually enable them to rely on others—and even blame others—when they should be learning to take responsibility for their life. This isn’t healthy.
Preparing children for the future means increasingly letting them get used to the weight of responsibility by not protecting them from the consequences of poor choices. Consequences are a natural part of life. In fact, our world is full of them, and they often come in the form of equations: If you do this, that will be the benefit; if you do that, this will be the consequence. Parents must consistently demonstrate and model these equations for their kids.
2. I would offer fewer explanations and more experiences.
Many parents I surveyed were predisposed to do the things I did. They gave lots of wisdom-filled talks to unsuspecting (and often ungrateful) children. They asked themselves, “Don’t kids realize the grief we’re sparing them from, if they’d only listen to our lectures?”
Looking back, I now see kids don’t learn well from a parent’s lecture. They do learn from engaging experiences, moments from which a parent can host a conversation and teach a life lesson. The need for a parent, then, is to cultivate environments and experiences for our kids to grow from. Our goal must shift from control to connect. Control is a myth—as any parent of a teenager will tell you. What they need are experiences that teach them how to operate effectively in the world.
When our kids are rescued or over-indulged, their social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual muscles can atrophy because they’re not exercised, so it’s our duty as parents to let them face measured hardships that ultimately help them grow. For example, I learned conflict resolution on a baseball field, where my friends and I had to umpire our own games; I learned discipline by tossing newspapers on driveways at 5:30 a.m. each morning; I learned patience sitting on a bench as a second-string basketball player; and I cultivated a work ethic closing a fast food restaurant each night at 11:00 p.m. Far too often today, parents safeguard kids from many of these experiences.
3. I would risk more and rescue less.
We live in a world that warns us of danger at every turn. Toxic. High voltage. Flammable. Slippery when wet. Steep curve ahead. Don’t walk. Hazard. This “safety first” preoccupation emerged over 30 years ago with the Tylenol scare and with children’s faces appearing on milk cartons. We became fearful for our kids, so we put knee-pads, safety belts and helmets on them … at the dinner table. (Just kidding on that one.) The truth is, we’ve insulated our kids from anything that is risky.
Unfortunately, over-protecting our young people has had an adverse effect on them.