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?
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. 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 my daughter, 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Adapted from TCW article "The Fine Art of Mothering" by Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse.