Monday, April 2, 2012

Children: Adults in Training

Remember when you were a kid? The world seemed to so big and fascinating with endless possibilities. Oh boy, you couldn't wait 'til you would be a grown-up and get out there!

But did you know how to be a grown-up? Heck, do we know how to be grown-ups now? Being grown-up means responsibility, decisions, stress, deadlines, heartburn, bills, and the list goes on. Now that we're here, do we ever look back and say, "What was the rush?"

However tragic is might be, the memorable words of J.M. Barrie ring loud and true: "All children grow up."As parents, it is our profound and sacred responsibility to help them develop into responsible, contributing adults. The hard part is finding out what that means and how in the world to do it.

Again, I would like to suggest certain principles which - if understood and applied - will help us in that ever-intimidating task of parenthood.

Principle 1: Let the kids decide.
In the premortal existence we fought for the divine and eternal gift of agency, or the ability to choose and act for ourselves. One of the primary reasons for our life here on earth is to learn how to use that gift in such a way that would enable us to be like our Heavenly Father someday. Our own children have that same gift and are beginning to learn how to use it.

We often hear the term "exercise our agency." Let's focus on the word exercise. This implies that it needs to be strengthened and developed over time, the same way that we develop our other muscles. They need to be pushed, pulled, and stretched to their breaking limits in order to grow and build stronger. What good would it do an athlete who is trying to build muscle if his spotter takes all of the weight? Sure, he might be able to log in that he benched hundreds of pounds, but did he really?

Likewise, as parents we will only hinder our children if we make all of our children's decisions for them. Can we really expect to strip them of their agency throughout their growing up life, perhaps under the false idea that we're just showing them the way, and then expect them to be able to make healthy, rational decisions once they leave home?

Granted, as parents we shouldn't just leave are child to fend for himself. We still need to help him make correct decisions. Dr. Lawrence Steinberg suggests five ways that do just that.

  1. Pick the right battles. Don't sweat the small stuff. Don't get engaged in trivial things. "When your child's choice really doesn't matter, err on the side of granting autonomy." Unless it's offensive, harmful or inappropriate, let him wear his hair how he wants, listen to music while she studies, and choose his own clothes.
  2. Preapprove your child's choices. As a parent you can set limits on what your child can and can't choose. Do so to choices that you are already okay with. For example, "If you want to limit your child's television viewing to one show per day, tell her which shows she is allowed to watch and ask her to choose among them, rather than picking the show herself."
  3. Praise your child's decisions. "You want your child to feel confident in her abilities to make good decisions. After she's made a choice, tell her that she's made a good one )assuming that what she chose was an alternative that was preapproved by you.) Saying [so] will make her feel good and help build her self-assurance," thus enabling her to continue on making her own decisions. 
  4. Help your child think through decisions rather than always make them for him. Don't take all the weight from the dumbbell, but don't let the weight crush him. Help him to see and understand the various consequences of all possible decisions and then let him decide. What may be obvious to you might not be for him.
  5. Let her learn from her mistakes. Naturally, as parents we don't want to see our children upset or disappointed, but part of life is living with the consequences of our mistakes. Let the child learn from experience. 
Now a word of caution: There will be times when we will have to step in and pull rank, but only in certain circumstances. The three main times when we do need to do that is when a) The effects are too dangerous (e.g. running out into the middle of the street) b) Another person's safety is at risk, (i.e. drunk driving) and c) when the consequences are too far-off for the child to see clearly now (such as sexual promiscuity or substance abuse.)

The Lord created two types of things: those to act and those to be acted upon (2 Nephi 2:14.) We are creatures to act. 

Principle 2: Setting Boundaries
"The most important thing that children need from their parents is love, but a close second is structure. One of the main ways you create structure in your child's life is by having expectations for proper behavior as well as constraints on how much freedom your child is granted. It doesn't matter how old your child is. All children need rules and limits." (Steinberg, pg. 87)  People need limits. We need boundaries. That's why governments exist. In the words of Bill Cosby, "I brought you into this world. I have a job. I buy you clothing. If I just let you run out, you'd be a wild woman chasing cars, biting tires." 

The natural man is "carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature." (Alma 42:10) Part of living life is to learn how to overcome and govern that fallen side of us. The Prophet Joseph Smith summed it up quite nicely on how to do this:

I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.

As I was talking about these things with my mom, she pointed out something that I find very intriguing and accurate: 

Children long for boundaries. They don’t know that, but that’s why permissive parenting is so hard on kids. They don’t know boundaries. They don’t know rules. So when they’re trying to find them when they aren’t there it just creates more havoc in their lives. So as a parent, as an instructor, as a teacher, it’s much easier to start of with small, firm boundaries and to loosen it up as you go than it is to create those later on, because that’s a very, very nonproductive type to do it in reverse.

This philosophy reminds me of a book that I read in middle school, The Out-siders, by S.E. Hilton, the character of Bob Sheldon is described as a youth from a high socioeconomic class who was killed in a street scuffle. Later on, his friend Randy explained his situation at home: 

They spoiled him rotten. I mean, most parents would be proud of a kid like that – good-lookin’ and smart and everything, but they gave in to him all the time. He kept trying to make someone say “No” and they never did. They never did. That was what he wanted. For somebody to tell him “No.” To have somebody lay down the law, set the limits, give him something solid to stand on. That’s what we all want, really. (Hilton, 1967, p. 116)

Heavenly Father knows the importance of boundaries. He gives us commandments so that we can become like him. They are not to restrict us, but to make us free. 

Principle 4: Let kids be kids.
Some things just can't be forced. As Steinberg said,

Part of respecting your child as a person involves allowing your child to act his age. This requires enjoying the stage of development your child is going through right now and resisting the temptation to help push him into the next one. Let his development unfold without trying to direct it all the time. (pg. 189)

Even the Lord teaches us "line upon line, precept upon precept." (D&C 98:12) It's been said that he doesn't expect us to be mighty oaks before we are saplings. 

Kids are going to be messy, noisy, and possibly quite the handful at times. Enjoy it while it lasts. Perhaps the most oft-quoted ditty that I hear my family with children of their own is "They just grow up so fast." 

Let them be kids. Have fun with them. It might even bring out that inner child in you long forgotten.

Principle 4: Kids are people, too.
Respect is something that each of us seek, both from others and from ourselves. Little children are still people - they just haven't been around as long. To have respect for someone doesn't mean that you will always agree with her, but rather it means that you accept her right to her own opinion and honor it. Back to Steinberg:

Respect is not measured in whether people agree with each other - it's measured in how they behave toward each other when they disagree. (pg. 180)

This doesn't mean that we should treat our children as our equals in status or abilities - but as individuals who deserved to be heard, to have their emotions validated (even if their behavior says otherwise.) 

Give him the same courtesies you would give anyone else. Speak to him politely. Respect his opinion. Pay attention when he is speaking to you. Treat him kindly. Try to please him when you can. Don't worry - you can do all of these things and still maintain your authority as the parent. You've known your child his entire life. The very least you can do is treat him as respectfully as you would treat someone you are meeting for the first time. (Steinberg, pg. 182)

Talk with your kids. Get to know them. They are priceless and precious

Think of how the Savior views little children. 

Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:14)

Therefore, whose repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive. (3 Nephi 9:22)

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19, emphasis added)

As my own mother put it so poetically,

We are not dictators as parents. We are only caretakers. You are not our children. You are on loan to us. You are Heavenly Father's children. We are his caretakers. We are His stewards. My philosophy was to parent you as Heavenly Father would parent you.

Sources Cited: 

-Steinberg, Dr. Lawrence, The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 2004
- Hilton, S.E., The Outsiders, Viking Press, New York, NY, 1967

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