They say that hindsight is 20/20. Hindsight lets us see how decisions we make play out. Sometimes in life it is reasonable to do your best, not over think a thing, and take your chances. Take a job in the northwest or overseas? Vacation in the mountains or spend your summer beachside? Who cares? What does it matter? Throw caution to the wind and enjoy!
Some things, of course, are much, much weightier and require our full attention, yet we take for granted that we’ll figure it out as we go. Parenting is one of those things. We jump in without much thought. If we were able to make a baby, it must mean parenting will come naturally…right? We’ll figure it out. We’ll instinctively know what to do…right?! Not necessarily.
I can say, without hesitation, that I would do some things differently now that I have hindsight. In my office, young parents often hear me say they are getting a two-for-one deal. Everything they learn about how to be whole, healthy adults will spill over as a blessing to their children. Some of the same insights and techniques they learn will be useful for their children. Man, I wish I had had some of this to draw from when I was a young parent! Without a more intentional approach to parenting we will default to the way we were raised. We’ll repeat the patterns, and if they were unhealthy, those negative habits and patterns will spill over into our children’s lives and our grandchildren’s and so on.
A Subtle Shift
What are some of the trends I am seeing? The focus of parenting has subtly shifted. Well-intentioned parents, frantic to give their children a leg up in life, lavish them with the best schools, the best neighborhood, the best tutors, coaches, camps and so on. Maybe it is a function of a Pinterest-y performance-based style of parenting. Social media keeps us constantly aware of what others in our circles are doing – and feeling bad if we are falling behind. Is this in our children’s best interest? Are our choices less about what is good for our children and more about parental ego? Children can sense this. They pick up on the idea that their value lies in what they do and achieve – whether in academics, sports, music, dance, and so on – rather than who they are. They know that when they fail, it reflects poorly on mom and dad. Is our correction motivated by a desire to train them to be healthy adults, or because they’ve embarrassed us? Children can tell the difference. Children are not supposed to have the burden of making their parents feel good about themselves.
Growth requires a bit of stumbling around. Children need to have room to make mistakes! Competitive parents tend to hyper-focus on their children, pressing them to perform better, fixing their mistakes, and protecting them from the real-life consequences of their choices. “Helicopter parenting” isn’t good for either the parent or the child. Parents are supposed to help their children prepare for healthy, independent adulthood.
In our zeal to see our children excel, we limit their participation in the mundane realities of family life. Sports practice, schoolwork, and extra curriculars become more important than chores or conversation around the dinner table. This can create a kind of functional narcissism where mom and dad serve the needs of the child, rather than the child thinking about the needs of the family. This may partially explain why I see a disturbing number of parents allow their children to use and abuse them. This includes adult children who expect mom and dad to continue to provide for them well into adult years, reacting with angry indignation when asked to take responsibility. Our children must learn they are not the center of the world. Parents must prepare their children for the realities of adulthood.
Lessons from the prodigal
So, what should we do? There is too much to say in one blog, but let’s consider the parable of the prodigal son. We love to skip to the end of the story. It is comforting to think of a wayward child returning to the family fold. The parallels to modern parenting are striking but we miss some of the most instructive parts of the story if we jump past them.
A young man grows up in the lap of luxury – like many of our own children. Anything he wants or needs his father provides. Likely he had the best education and opportunities money could buy. Rather than cultivating gratitude, this young man becomes entitled. He demands his inheritance and insists on going his own way.
Does his father plead, bargain, or threaten his son? No. With sadness, he gives him what he thinks is due to him and lets him go. Important note: Whether it is wise to hand a young person their inheritance is an entirely different subject! The father recognizes his son’s right to choose his own path – even if it breaks his heart. The truth is our (adult) children have the “right” to choose the life they want – even if it turns out to be a disaster.
Likely the prodigal’s father was humiliated his son would treat him with such disrespect and I’m guessing he was afraid for his son. The prodigal’s comfortable upbringing shielded him from the harsh realities of adult life. What the prodigal’s father gets right – something we moderns have such trouble with – is that he recognizes his son MUST bear the consequences of his choices. In this case, consequences included wallowing in the mud with pigs, foraging for whatever he could find to eat. The consequence of his foolish choices is the thing that drives the prodigal to turn back.
Parents are often quick to protect their children from the consequences of their choices. We can’t stand to see them struggle. We may honestly believe we can love them back to their senses. But in doing so we rob them of their best teacher, the real-life consequences of their choices.
Reading further we see the prodigal doesn’t just grudgingly admit life hadn’t worked out as he hoped. He isn’t angry because life is hard. He doesn’t rail against the unfairness of it all. Rather, he is ashamed and humbled. He owns his failure and foolishness, returning to his father a broken, but much better man than when he left. His father welcomes him home because he sees his broken and contrite spirit.