Sunday, April 13, 2014

Parenting Paradigm Shift: Embracing the What-Ifs

There is no doubt: one of the most difficult things to do is modify behavior.

There's a reason that countless resources exist, whether in the form of books, college courses, self-help courses with any multitude of strategies and perspectives on raising children.  Because, the truth is that for each and every one of us, we all spend our adult lives analyzing the way that we were raised.  Nobody gets out of this without a little therapy. Freudian formal or over Starbucks with a girlfriend, we all end up laying on the proverbial couch over the relationships, habits, norms and values we were brought up with.

One of the things that is most troubling to me, though, as I try to define for my children what their "normal" will look like, is how very easy it is for the world to undo the lessons I am working so diligently to deliver.  Those values that I'm working so hard to model and reinforce are easily overridden by the hundreds of messages they are receiving simply as a byproduct as they go about their day.

It certainly plays into my decision to homeschool.  I've watched kids cry about wearing a certain type of pant to school because "the girls at school don't like pants like this."  You'd think this message came from my 8th graders, right?  I wish.  This was from kindergartners.  I've listened to second graders talk about Miley Cyrus (not those adorable Hannah Montana years, either) and all the images that conjures up.  At the age of four, Barbies have become the top "get" as presents, and, though I know it flies in the face of little girl "tradition," I'm just not sure what redeeming value that particular toy has.  At the end of the day, it just doesn't fit in with the values we're working so hard to help instill in our children.

 So, for our kids, we've made a very intentional executive decision: Embrace the what-ifs.

What if, from the time that child is tiny, we fed him or her exclusively with positive messages?  I am not suggesting parenting without limits - quite the opposite - but positive messages in the form of music, modeling, books, toys, movies, TV shows, other parents and, yes, other children.  What if we surround our children with an array of age-appropriate, well-vetted imagery, speech and actions that nurture their spirits, character, and souls?

What if we cast off that which is negative, limit that which is neutral, and seek out only that which gives voice to the value and potential of our children?

What if we stand between our children and the idea that the status quo is acceptable, even best, as a yardstick for what goes into developing our children?  What if we reject the notion that, since everyone else is doing it, strength in numbers somehow equates to raising compassionate, joyful and engaged offspring?

What if we approach parenthood not only as a major milestone in our own lives, but as an intentional, inspired launching pad for our little beloveds?

If there is one thing I am discovering as a mother, it is that God has entrusted me with the high honor to speak identity into my children.  Not to say that they are empty vessels who wait on me to breathe life into them; clearly they are their own beings with amazing personalities, strengths, ideas and preferences all their own.  Every mother knows how difficult it is to force a child to eat a food he or she doesn't like, or to argue a point with a toddler who has made up his or her own mind on an issue.  They are willful, independent beings right from the start!

Still, the ability we have been given as mothers to influence, touch, guide and develop our children cannot be overstated, nor should it be undervalued.  We are not to simply sit on the sidelines as our children grow - particularly when they are small and willing to embrace the lessons and wisdom we have to offer.

If you've ever tried to speak with someone about sheltering your children, the responses are as mixed and varied as your audience.  In some ways, the idea of "sheltering" has become a veritable bad parenting buzz-word, equated with unhealthy, awkward children who will undoubtedly grow into adults who melt at life's simplest challenge.

Done well, this could not be further from the truth.

The goal of sheltering is not to keep them from the world, but to better equip them to enter a world full of tough choices.  To arm them with self-confidence, Godly knowledge and discernment.  To help them know where their parents stand on difficult, controversial issues - and more importantly, why we feel that way - and give them roots to make their own choices out of wisdom.  To gift them the opportunity to develop their own character, skills and minds as individuals and give them lots of practice making choices while the stakes are small so that they are ready to function in our much larger world of pressures, choices and consequences.

In education terms, we would call it "front loading."  Without getting too technical, it means to spend a great deal of time pre-teaching the skills we know our learners will need to use independently later on.  In fact, most of what we do as teachers isn't conveying knowledge or facts, but investing up front in the "big ideas" that will carry them through the lesson, then refining processes and providing feedback so that when students are ready to grapple with the subject independently, they have the greatest chance at success.

The idea, then, for raising children, is to identify the characteristics and behaviors we would hope to see from our children and spend time investing in those while they are little.  To surround them with a world that supports and reinforces those values while we can, and gradually release them, with guidance and feedback, into young adults who make their own independent decisions.

"Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." 
Proverbs 22:5

It's not about protecting them from failure.  Failure is our greatest ally in making wise choices.  It's not about protecting them from pain, since some things you can only learn through experience, pain and loss.  It is about asking two questions: who can our children become if they are allowed to focus on becoming the best version of themselves, and what do they need from us in order to get there?  Not for the purpose of engendering selfishness or vanity or entitlement, but because when they embrace the best version of themselves, when they know who they are and why they're here, they have the most to give back to the world.  

Where they take it is ultimately up to them, and the issues they'll confront over coffee (I pray it's just coffee and not more intensive therapy!) will undoubtedly be their own.  For my part, though, I'm content to err on the side of caution.  It's alright with me that when my four year old hears "Don't Stop Believin'" on the radio, she confidently informs me that she likes the song because it's about God.  That she found it odd when, at a dinner with our friends recently, they didn't pray before their meal.  That she calmly informs other children that they need to use kind words and gentle hands. At four, this is the "normal" I have prepped her for.

And I'm cool with that.  

It doesn't mean we will be perfect.  It doesn't mean our children will be.  But what if we keep trying?

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