"Jessica's mean sometimes."
The words from my daughter, Amanda, were casual, thrown over her shoulder as she got a snack and went to watch television. But I felt my motherly hackles rising. "What do you mean, dear?" I said.
"Well, today she told me to shut up. She said I talk too much."
Now the she-bear was in full rage. "That's terrible!" I exclaimed. "You don't talk too much. That must have felt awful. Here, honey, let me give you a hug. Now if that happens again, you should. . ."
"Mom. It's okay." Amanda hardly paid attention as she grabbed the remote and surfed through the channels.
"But … " I wanted to continue the discussion, but something inside me warned, Back off. This is not your struggle.
Boundaries? What Boundaries?
When my children were still at home, there were times when Amanda procrastinated on doing her homework, pleading lack of understanding. I'd sit with her and carefully explain a concept—say, fractions—I knew she'd learned at school. The assignment would get done and eventually she'd get to bed. She wouldn't get into trouble, but there would be a part of me that would wonder, Should I let Amanda get into trouble? Allow her to accept the consequences of her inattention?
Am I an overinvolved mom?
Almost from the time our children learn to walk, mothering is a delicate balancing act. We want to give them freedom to explore—but we put covers on the electrical outlets and locks on the medicine cabinets. We want them to learn to cope with failure, but we also do everything in our power to help them succeed. We want them to try their wings in the world, but oh, what a dangerous world it is!
I'm not sure my mother wrestled with these questions when I was a kid growing up in the '50s and '60s. She fed us hot dogs without guilt; I read articles that say it's never too soon to start worrying about your child's cholesterol count. Mom said, "Never talk to strangers"; my daughter now takes a state-mandated course in drug and gang awareness. My mother's chief worry about television viewing was whether we sat too close to the screen. Now. . . you get the picture.
Voices from Both Sides
We encourage our children to strive for achievement. We try to shield them from the dangers of the outside world. We're concerned for their emotional well-being. What's wrong with that? As my friend Barb passionately says, "It's our God-given responsibility to care for and guide our children." As Proverbs says, "Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck" (1:8-9).
But are there times when the best thing we can do for our children is back off? Dr. Grace Ketterman, a Christian pediatrician and psychiatrist, states that "your most important task as a mother is to enable your child to gradually become independent." But how?
Christian moms are sharply divided on this question. Take Lynn, who said this when her kids were middle-school age: "It's my obligation to direct my children's path. Adolescence isn't necessarily the time to let them choose their own path. Teenagers are still children. I've heard the arguments about letting our kids learn consequences, but I've also seen that carried to ridiculous lengths. It's a parent's responsibility to guide her children and help them learn to submit to authority."
Then there's Kris who said this when her children were teenagers: "When my kids were younger, I thought it was so easy. It isn't that hard to control little kids. Now that I have two in high school, I realize sometimes kids will go their own way no matter what you do. The more we pushed our oldest, who's now a senior, the more he rebelled. We had to learn to back off. I know some of our friends think we're too hands-off—but they don't have teens yet."
I know mothers who strongly believe they should help guide their adolescents through the delicate process of choosing friends of the opposite sex. Other women counter, "But what happens when the kid becomes an adult and is out in the world without your careful guidance? Are you really helping him?"
All these moms are committed Christians, conscientious and caring mothers. In a sense, they're all correct. So where do we draw the line between loving concern and what a friend of mine calls "smother mothering?" What does Proverbs 22:6 mean when it says to "train a child in the way he should go?"
When Drawing Your Own Lines
Here are some insights I've gleaned as I've tackled this parenting challenge.
Know your mothering style. Regardless of what the latest experts say or how our friends at church are raising their kids, we each have a unique personality that probably affects our parenting as much as anything—for better and for worse. Diane Eble, in her book A Life You Can Love: Discovering Your Personal Style and Designing Your Life Around It, addresses this issue in depth, as does Janet Penley, speaker and author of the book Mothers of Many Styles.
For instance, an introverted mom is drained by constant interaction and needs more time alone. A mother who values intuition and creativity is inclined to "read" her child and make up disciplining solutions as she goes along. Some moms dislike noise and disorder and need to carve out a space for themselves where chaos cannot intrude. Some love having kids (and their friends) around all the time; others struggle with maintaining schedules, but they are great for spontaneous fun. No one style is "better" than another—but certain personality types may be more prone toward overinvolvement.
I see myself in Eble's description of the "feeling mom" who's strongly emotional and empathetic, and who "may find it difficult to keep her emotions separate from her children's problems. For instance, she may find it devastating when her child is rejected by peers." It would be hard for me to emulate Heather, the single mom Eble describes as disciplined and objective. Heather struggled with her two kids getting up, dressed, fed, and off to daycare in time. Finally she bought them alarm clocks and taught them how to use them. She expected them to lay out their clothes the night before and be dressed and ready for breakfast. If they dawdled, they wouldn't get to eat.
When we're aware of our tendencies in one direction or another, we can have a stronger sense of why we respond the way we do to our children and their problems, and, when needed, try to adjust accordingly. I had to learn not to automatically overreact when Amanda would tell me about some of her friendship struggles. She doesn't necessarily need an empathetic pal; she needs a mother who can give practical advice when she's feeling lonely or excluded: "Why not call Katy and invite her over? You and she always seem to have fun when you're together."
Know your child. Proverbs doesn't say, "Train a child in the way you—the parent—should go." We can overestimate our ability to "mold" our children. I can encourage Amanda to read, I can let her see me reading, I can even read aloud to her; the fact is, however, she'll never be the bookworm I am. She'd rather play sports. So my husband and I signed her up for various programs, and were there to cheer her on at her games, win or lose, rain or shine. In this case, we've taken our cues from our child.
Some children seem to be born self-reliant; others need to be fussed over more. Teenagers may still be "children," as Lynn says, but some of those "children" are extraordinarily mature and trustworthy. "I never had to nag my oldest daughter about anything," says my friend Colleen, whose firstborn is finishing college. "She's always been like a miniature adult." Others, well …
And children do change. I'm proof of that: I was at best an indifferent student my sophomore year in high school, but by the following year, I began getting As and Bs—without my parents pushing me—because some internal motivator kicked in that told me it was time to get serious about my life.
(One theory that's helped me a lot: If your kid is driving you crazy, wait it out, and he'll grow out of it. Of course, then something new will drive you crazy.)
Know your motivation. Most of us are aware of the dangers of pushing our children like some overzealous Little League parent. At the same time, especially in today's achievement-oriented culture, there's a subtle temptation to want to "display" our children as little trophies that prove what good parents we are. We want our kids to succeed at something we failed at, or live out an unfulfilled dream. Yes, part of our commitment as parents is to give our children the opportunity to sample different activities—sports, music, church club programs. And part of our responsibility is to encourage our children to do their best. But if we find ourselves taking something too seriously (such as my worries about Amanda's friendships), we may need to ask ourselves, Is this about my child—or is it about me?
Thom Black, author of Kicking Your Kids Out of the Nest, observes that we each have unspoken ideas of what we think "a good kid" should do and be: get As, always do as she's told, be active at church. I sometimes wished my daughter would have joined our church's youth choir, but she wasn't interested. I didn't push it, because it occurred to me that my desire to have her participate was less that she would enjoy it, and more that I would enjoy having people look at Amanda during a performance and think, Look at that nice Christian girl. Her parents are doing a great job!
Know the stakes. While we may refuse to bail out our kids if they haven't finished a school project, there are times we need to save them from themselves. It's not being an "overinvolved" parent to pay attention to whom our kids spend their time with, especially as they move into adolescence. It isn't overparenting to step in when we see our once-diligent child suddenly failing at school, or to wait up for our teenagers and ask them how their evening went.
Author Thom Black makes an important distinction between "control" and "authority." "Do you want a 16 year old who never drinks pop without asking you first, or do you want a 17 year old who never gets herself pregnant in high school?" he asks rhetorically. When we "control," we're telling our kids what to do. True authority comes from keeping the lines of communication open, being there for our kids, and seeing our growing children as they really are—not as "helpless, dependent youngsters, but as individuals growing toward healthy independence."
Know what matters. Valerie Bell, author of Getting Out of Your Kids' Faces and Into Their Hearts, says many parents make life way too hard on their kids and on themselves. Everything becomes a battleground—television choices, nutrition, neatness, attitudes, clothes, friendships. She suggests focusing on just a few core values and rearing our kids accordingly. This approach can help us wend our way through the hands-on/hands-off thicket.
Dr. Ketterman offers a list of possible core values: "Honesty, kindness, tolerance, compassion, humor, generosity, excellence in work, and relaxation." I would add the "fruits of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22) are a good place to start, along with the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:7-21). Whatever values we choose, however, it's equally important to evaluate whether we as adults are "walking the talk." In our own family, church attendance was a core value, a non-negotiable. Kindness and courtesy are core values. So is telling the truth. If I'm "overinvolved" in these areas, so be it—but at least I'm not squandering a lot of energy reminding my daughter to eat her vegetables.
In the end, we do have to trust God for our children. Yes, they are ours to guide, but not forever. We can't, and shouldn't, spend every waking hour with them. We can, and should, pray for and with them, talk to them, and listen to them. Most of all, we can let them know they're loved unconditionally. I like the way Valerie Bell puts it: "The sense of 'I'm crazy about you' is a propeller. It sends them out into the world with the internal stuff to handle whatever comes their way."
That sounds like the best kind of roots and wings we mothers can give our growing children.
Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse, an author, speaker, and editor, lives with her family in Illinois.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
The Fine Art of Mothering
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