[View original article published in the Daily Herald here]
“There are two lasting bequests that we can give our children. One is roots, the other is wings.”
Hodding Carter, Jr.
All parents remember the emotions experienced when their first child was born. Besides boundless joy we also experienced an overwhelming sense of responsibility. We realized we needed to make adjustments.
For instance, when a young friend became a father for the first time, he and his wife were worried about leaving the hospital with their little girl. The hospital was about 15 minutes away from their house if they traveled on the highway. They chose to go the slower — but safer — route through the city streets out of concern for their little girl.
Since becoming a father, my friend has become one of the safest drivers on the road! He explained, “I wanted to place a big sign on my car saying ‘precious cargo on board. ‘ I wanted to ensure no harm would come to my little princess.”
All of us probably can relate to this young man’s feelings. Parenting is the greatest and most rewarding calling. It can also be frustrating. Despite our efforts to protect our children, life happens and they will encounter opposition. Our princes and princesses need our protection, but they also need experiences to prepare for the dragons in their own lives. They won’t have the ability to slay them if we keep our children “safe” in the castle.
A few years ago, I was counseling an anguished couple whose 16-year-old daughter had run away from home. They grieved for their “little princess” who had escaped from their castle tower, and were desperate to know how to bring her back.
As I spoke with them, the father admitted that he had been overprotective and strict with her. He said he provided advice and lectures almost every day but that she would not “listen.” When I asked them if they knew what kind of friends she had, they didn’t know. They remembered that she once asked them if she could bring friends over, but they said they didn’t want “strangers” in their home. She then started coming home late from school because she went elsewhere with her friends. The father, concerned about his daughter, responded by waiting at the bus stop to take her home once she stepped off.
Reflecting on this, the parents realized the mistakes they had made. Even though they thought this was the way to protect her from harm, their lack of trust led them to this predicament. What could they do to make things right? Was it too late? And how could they have developed their relationship differently and avoid their daughter’s need to run away?
Building the right kind of relationship starts at a young age and is built over time. As we try to listen and understand our children’s stages of life and perspective, we can show them that we love them. Time spent playing and doing activities that our children enjoy is precious. It can be the means of entering their world. Showing unconditional love and genuine interest builds emotional savings into the relationship and our children will typically respond in kind.
It’s been said that “a ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are made for.” Our children need to experience life — with our guidance, not a tight leash. We need to make ourselves available and acknowledge their positive behaviors and accomplishments. We can strengthen our children by letting them strengthen themselves. When they fail, we can be there to pick them up emotionally.
As children grow, our role as parents change. Famed psychologist Erik Erickson said the stage of identity vs. role confusion begins between the ages of 12 to 18 years of age. At this age children are trying to figure themselves out. They want their independence. They believe they know it all. They certainly would be thrilled to have their friends live with them and have us move out! It’s at this time when we can “harvest” the relationship “seeds” that should have been planted in the earlier years. This is the time the real relationship with our children will be tested. Does your relationship with your children pass the test? Do you need to make any adjustments?
Teach limits and consequences
It would be wonderful if our teenagers continued to comply in helping with dishes or sweeping the floor as they did when they were 4 years old. But our children grow up and will want to test our limits. When they get into mischief, maintain a positive attitude and use the situation to teach them to become positive leaders amongst their peers.
Remember that when disciplining children, bribes and threats only work temporarily. They need to clearly understand the rules and consequences. Parents need to create realistic expectations and be consistent. It’s best when we have our children’s input regarding their consequences. As they get older, we can loosen the rope and keep any consequences consistent with their age and maturity level.
What was my advice to the couple who wanted to know how to get their daughter back? They needed to show their daughter unconditional love, respect and trust. They needed to share their concerns and allow their daughter to share her concerns. They needed to come up with a mutual plan to strengthen their relationship. Simply putting her back in the castle tower was not the answer.
It’s never too late to re-connect and strengthen your relationship with your children. Someone has said that “When we make mistakes, it is not what we did that matters, it is what we do, after what we did that’s important.” We can survive and thrive! We can create a trusting and respectful relationship with our children. We can do it!