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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

3 Relationships Parents Should Promote and Why

My 11 year old son, Ethan, was at pitching boot camp the other day preparing for the upcoming baseball season, and I overheard a pitching coach telling a young pitcher to keep his hands on his chest when preparing to deliver the ball. Sometimes pitchers, like this young man, raise their hands above their heads like the one in the picture as part of their wind up. He went on to explain that, back in the day, pitchers wore long sleeves and used this upward movement to get their long sleeves out of the way and give their arms full range of movement. Why do kids still do it today? Because that’s what they thought they were supposed to do.

As parents, what are we supposed to do?

What is our role in our children’s lives?

Too often, we just follow the example of those who raised us or, determined not to repeat their mistakes, we follow some other example. But do we really know why we do what we do?

The 3 Relationships Parents Should Promote for Their Children and Why:

1 - Be their Provider

As parents our primary role is to provide security and stability for our children. This includes lots of things including each of the layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shown below. Of course, the top level, self-actualization, is up to them, but we can certainly help give them a strong foundation to build it upon.

As parents, we also make and enforce boundaries – some of which are important and good and others which are fear-based, overly constrictive, dangerously lax, obsolete or even just plain wrong. We are fallible and though we try our best, we often fail to set healthy boundaries for our children.

In a nut-shell, that is our primary role as parents. Daunting, isn’t it?

There is more. And, here is both an added responsibility and an added support system. We have the responsibility to introduce our children to other significant adults and provide an environment where they can development meaningful friendships. These relationships play different roles in our children’s lives, but they are both essential to their development.

2 - Help them Find Supportive Adults.

At about 7 years old, children start to see themselves as something more than just a member of their immediate family. They begin to let other people in and accept them as members of their inner circle of trust.

Adults that are not in the home can be in that inner circle. And this can provide tremendous support to parents. Significant adults in a child’s life can be grandparents, teachers, coaches, spiritual leaders, etc.
Ideally they will share the same primary values and beliefs. As the children see that adults they trust agree on the main things, they will feel more secure and confident about their core beliefs.

They will also begin to notice differences among their parents and these significant adults. Differences of opinion on certain behaviors like diet and exercise, political views, choice of entertainment, views on wealth and prosperity, ways of relating to others, and any number of other differences. These differences create space for the child to test their own individuality within the confines of the larger sense of security and well-being that the values and beliefs held by their role models provide.

They learn that they can grow up to be different and still be true to their core beliefs.

Even as toddlers, children need to test their boundaries and distinguish themselves as individuals. They long to be one of a kind! And, they are. Their uniqueness begins to take shape at a very early age. 

As agonizing as it is, our children need to say, “No!” when we tell them to eat their green beans or brush their teeth. This is a crucial step in forming their identity.

3 - Help them Develop Meaningful Friendships.

During adolescence, our children begin to identify with their peers and look to them for support and a sense of belonging. They long for the approval found in fulfilling others’ expectations. They still draw their security and stability from their family, but friends give them a sense of adventure and are will to take risks with them in their mutual search for identity.

These peers offer our children the courage to explore. All parents are wrong sometimes, our boundaries are too loose or too tight, our motivations are screwed up by our own insecurities and misplaced fears. At this age, our children want to know which of our boundaries are good and right, which are stupid and overbearing, and which are ones that they will choose for themselves.

In a sense, they want to figure out what boundaries they would set for themselves and try them on like a costume. The consequences of this can sometimes be harmful emotionally (like when our son or daughter gets their heart broken because they started dating too early), physically (like when they ride their bike over a homemade ramp that you told them wasn’t safe), spiritually (when they entrust their soul to someone who abuses their trust), or even fatally (when they participate in some life-threatening activity like cutting, car surfing, huffing, or any alcohol or drug use).

Faced with these realities, of course, as parents we want to protect our children. That’s what giving them security is all about.

Rather than trying to find a safe balance, a compromise or middle ground, we actually need to push both extremes, live in the tension. We need to let them express themselves, experiment with different boundaries, take risks and experience the consequences of their actions. And we need to protect them from themselves and their own lack of ability to evaluate risks.

Recent research on teenage brains confirms what we all have known, teenagers are bad at evaluating risks. They make dumb choices that can be disastrous. This research suggests that they actually do stop and evaluate the risk before doing something, but they are less afraid of the unknown than their adult counterparts.

This is vital for survival and thriving, since the adolescent has to face numerous unknowns in order to move out into the world and become an individual. But, it brings with it a limited ability to accurately gauge the risks involved in facing the unknown. 

Makes sense, doesn't it? Why else would teens be the most likely to start smoking, to begin having sex, to be converted to Christianity (or any religion)? Teens are less afraid of facing the unknown because so much of life is unknown to them.

We need to let them take all kinds of risks and reap the consequences good and bad. We also need to protect them from those risks that just aren’t worth it. We need to be that part of their brain that says, "No, not this time. That risk is just too great."

In the examples given before, maybe we say yes to the dating heartbreak but protect them from physical and sexual intimacy, maybe we allow them to scrape their knees on the bike ramp but move the ramp to the grass to prevent broken bones, and maybe we allow them to participate in other spiritual experiences and listen to and help them process their mixed reactions to them. And, definitely, we shield them from taking life-threatening risks all together.

Peers help our children to take appropriate risks, to press against the boundaries and find out where we have gone too far or been too lax. As much as possible we want to encourage these peer relationships with those who share similar core beliefs and values, but who they choose as friends is ultimately up to them. We can set appropriate boundaries to help them take risk in a controlled environment.

Throughout their lives, our children will be experiencing God and finding their own identity amidst a world that would gladly shape and morph them into its constantly changing image of enlightenment and happiness. These three interpersonal relationships provide a community of people to travel that road with them to act as guides, load bearers, travel companions, and comic relief.

The mutual dependence of these relationships cannot be over emphasized. In all three relationships (with parents, significant adults and peers), our children must perceive that they are responsible for their own thoughts, feelings, actions and the consequences of each and responsible to those with whom they are journeying. Each of us has times when we are the guide and others follow and when we are the load bearer carrying more than our share.

Our children need us to provide the basics and also to help them create mutually beneficial relationships that will support them along their life’s journey.

By the grace of God, we can do that.

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