“Who’s that?” my sister-in-law, Kerri, asked, her index finger planted firmly in my chest. She was speaking to her son, Jackson, who, at the time, was the cutest toddler on the planet. Objectively adorable by all scientific measures.
“Uncle No,” he answered, staring right at me. The nickname “Uncle No” was well-deserved. In Jackson’s eyes, my main function in life was to utter the word nonstop while following him around and forcibly removing anything remotely entertaining from the clutches of his chubby fist. His estimate wasn’t far off. My diligence was fueled by a selfish desire to avoid getting any of the GerberSaurus’ slobber on my stuff and a genuine concern for the child’s welfare.
I wish I could say that my irrationality has subsided now that we’ve been raising our own little funk factories for the past decade, but I still find myself saying “no” a lot. A typical conversation goes something like this:
“Dad, can we go to the park by ourselves?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because you’ll probably take off your shoes, and then you’ll get a splinter of mulch stuck in your foot.” “That won’t happen.” “Yes, it will. And you’ll scream like an angry monkey and won’t let me dig it out, so it’ll get infected. Two days from now we’ll go to the clinic where the nurse will give you a shot to numb your foot. But you’ll fidget, so the needle will break off under the skin, causing major nerve damage. It’ll get so bad that we will probably have to amputate. And then we won’t be able to find a prosthetic that feels comfortable to you since you can’t even find shoes that ‘feel right,’ so I’ll have to spend the rest of my life being your nurse while I watch my retirement dreams of traveling the world with your mother die a slow, painful death.”
“So we can’t go to the park because you want to go on a world tour with mom instead of taking care of a one-legged kid?” “That’s right. Now go cure a disease.”
Ok. Maybe I exaggerate, but I have noticed this tendency in myself. Anytime our kids venture out on their own, my mind conjures up all the awful things that could happen and my knee-jerk response becomes, “No.” This is likely a result of a steady diet of fear. My own programming dates back to an 80s after-school special on the dangers of being a latch-key kid, and is reinforced by today’s non-stop news cycle filled with countless stories of child abductions, human trafficking, and school violence.
I suspect I’m not alone in this. Many of us are cautious with our kids. We don’t want to subject them to undue harm, so we make rules, set limits, and erect borders. And many would argue that our vigilance has been productive.
Statistics show there has never been a safer time to be a kid in the United States. The rates of violent crime, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abductions, and motor vehicle injuries are far lower than they were for the previous generation of children. And it’s not just that. Playgrounds are like paradise. The pinching metal hooks and rusty nails of my childhood have been replaced with kooshy foam flooring and corner-free molded plastic. School lunches are healthier, too. Ketchup, once considered a vegetable, is now a lowly condiment again. Even rates of bullying have decreased.
So what’s the problem?
Sometimes we take this desire to protect our kids a bit too far, and it morphs into a misguided attempt to manufacture their happiness. Call it “helicopter parenting.” Call it “over-parenting.” But whatever name you give to it, it’s not helping our kids.
Don’t get me wrong, the intent is noble. As hands-on parents, we know the negative consequences of poor life choices, so we coach our kids to avoid them. And we’re with them every step of the way.
We monitor every play date and group interaction to make sure they don’t do something to hurt someone else or get hurt themselves.
When they forget their lunchbox, we drive it up to school for them because we don’t want them to go hungry.
We check every sheet of homework, find their mistakes for them, and work together to correct them. Why? Because we don’t want them to screw it up so bad that they get a bunch of horrible grades that ultimately impact their report card or their ability to play in the big game.
As they get older, we call prospective employers to see if they have summer job openings and then review our kid’s job application to make sure it’s worded just right, so they won’t be rejected.
And we insist that all of our prodding is for their own good. We’re helping them avoid the same mistakes we made, right? Wrong.
The truth is, when we shield our kids from struggle and consequence we rob them of their strength and resilience. And when we have such a direct hand in their victories, they cannot claim any for themselves.
Studies show that “over-parented” kids report lower rates of physical activity and higher rates of obesity. They are more likely to be bullied, and more likely to take anxiety medication. “Over-parented” kids also report higher rates of depression and lower rates of life satisfaction when they eventually leave the nest and go to college.
That’s right, our quest to manufacture happy kids is inadvertently creating unhappy, unhealthy adults.
The statistics are bad enough. But when I look at myself as a faithful person, I can see that my tendency to over- parent exposes an internal contradiction as well. And maybe the same is true for you.
It’s as if I’m completely confident that God will take care of me, but I’m not so sure he’ll do the same for my kids. Simmer on that one for a moment.
Faced with this realization, I’ve started to parent differently. Adopting some simple rules, I try to bring us back into balance and get clear on what are real dangers to our children, and what are only perceived threats. I wish I could say we do this 100% of the time, but we’re still human, and still making mistakes ourselves. But here’s the gist.
Remember how much you have gained from your struggles. Think back to the most pivotal moment in your life—the experience that taught you your greatest lesson. Odds are good that the situation involved struggle, pain, or tremendous effort. We rarely learn from the experiences of others or successes that were handed to us. Your kids will be no different.
Change your questions. When our kids push for autonomy, too often we ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” This question only encourages us to think of horrible outcomes that have very little likelihood of happening. Instead, ask, “What might they learn from this?” and “What strategies can I teach them so they can avoid real danger here?”
Be there when they fall. Notice it doesn’t say “catch them.” You don’t have to rescue them. Nor do you have to pontificate or extract life’s lessons from every misstep. Consequences are life’s greatest teacher. So, when failures happen (and they will), your job as the parent is to help them process their pain, acknowledge the heartache, and remind them how much you still love them. Then they’ll be ready to move forward on their own.
In the end, we need to realize that we can’t do our jobs as parents if we’re also doing the jobs of our children. We must step back and allow them to make mistakes, remembering that true joy doesn’t come from a stress-free life, but rather, from knowing we have been made in the image of God—with strength enough to brace ourselves against life’s boulders, grace enough to forgive ourselves when we’ve fallen short, and love enough to share with all those we meet along the way.
What more could any child need?