Monday, August 16, 2010

Helpless Children; Helpless Parents

I have seven children, five of whom are adults. As our kids have worked through the normal stages of development, we've often cited the oldest life-stage we're dealing with and pronounced it as the "hardest time to parent children" – you know: toddlers are the hardest children to parent; no, teenagers are the hardest to parent; no, young adults are hardest to parent.

In fact, they're all hard. Because the stakes are so high. I am certain, looking back, that my parents also had sleepless nights wondering about the choices I was making. Not that I was doing awful things, but just wondering if it would all turn out all right. Whatever hang ups my parents may have had (and I'm sure they had some, but I'm happy not to enumerate them), I do know that my parents genuinely wanted what was best for me, and that generally meant something better than what they had as kids.

And they delivered. My father worked hard to provide a comfortable life for us. We weren't rich (as Mom regularly reminded us – "We can't afford that!"), but I always had shoes that fit (even if my pants didn't, since that pre-school year trip to JC Penney had to last all year), plenty to eat (though there were a lot of casseroles – shepherd's pie was my least favorite followed closely by tuna noodle casserole), and a family that loved me.

My mother was a big believer in letting us fight our own battles. I remember coming home from the Junior High bus one day, after a near fist fight with a kid who had been picking on me. I had not been hit (our mutual friends separated us and saved me from injury, if not embarrassment). Mom pointed out that in that case she hadn't meant I should literally fight my battle, but she still didn't tell me what I'd done was wrong. And she didn't rush to call another parent to smooth things out for me. I don't think it would ever have occurred to her to do such a thing.

So you'd think I'd be able to sit and watch my kids make their own mistakes and patiently wait for things to resolve themselves. As if. I have to sit on my hands, bite my tongue, bide my time, and hope I don't explode with more "help" than they need.

The divine model is more like my mom. Heavenly Father allows us to flounder. He gives us a chance to learn truth and to practice it (and practice and practice) until we get it right. And he allows us not to get it right. I remember in a Fortran class years ago our professor suggested the computer was infinitely patient: as many times as we typed a line of code wrong, the computer would calmly respond: "Data entry error" (or whatever the error code was). Our Father in Heaven is also patient. The Lord reminds us that He is anxious to gather us as a hen gathers her chicks, and that his arms are outstretched still, but we must walk to Him. And He waits. And I hope I can learn to do the same.


  1. Agreed. What I think a lot of parents don't recognize is that "helicopter parenting" harms kids in the long run, by stunting their growth. I'm familiar with a kid who, at 22 years old, is still unable to do anything for himself--and, worse, has no expectation that he should. Awhile ago, at a wedding, he got drunk and was carousing around at three in the morning; the hotel management asked him to pipe down, and his only response was, "what a terrible hotel". Indeed, his parents' response was to agree with him, and help him get ready to go the next morning--even though he was so drunk, he couldn't get out of bed on his own. There were no consequences. In his life so far, they've (I'm sure unintentionally) taught him that love and success mean no consequences, ever.

    Unfortunately, this is hardly the case in the real world. All coddling someone to that extent teaches them is that the world is "unfair". I hope, for this kid's sake, that his first experience with consequences isn't losing something, or someone, he really cares about.

  2. And it's not just helicopter parenting of young ones -- I know we're in a different world today and parental vigilance is a safety requirement that didn't exist in the same way when I was a child.

    But the enabling behavior you describe for the 22-year old -- yikes! Sound the alarm, Mom and Dad!!

    (What the drunken frat boy doesn't know is there are far more guests saying "what a terrible hotel" because of the commotion he's causing.)