I’m sure many of you have heard that old Hallmark card adage on parenting that goes something like this: Parents give their children two great gifts—one is roots, the other is wings. This is what I address in this article.
As parents, we pray for our children’s safety, health and happiness. We do everything we know to help make these things happen for them.
At some point in our lives, we developed the principles and values that guide our life decisions. Our parents and/or caregivers certainly had influence over this. Some people gladly adopted their parents’ values and continue to live by them today. Other people rejected their parents’ values, sometimes so much so that their decisions are determined by doing the exact opposite of what their parents would do. Most of us, however, are somewhere in the middle—we have accepted some of our parents’ values and rejected others.
This is a normal process of development we can all remember. As parents, however, we really fight that period in our children’s lives when they start to differentiate themselves from us. It could be because we fear for their safety in their decision-making. Maybe we can see that they are engaging in unhealthy behavior or heading down a life path that will ultimately lead to unhappiness. Whatever the reason, we tend to get scared if our children’s values differ too much from our own.
What can we do as parents? As we raise our children, we are helping to strengthen their roots. This is the first gift a parent gives their child; we tend, we nurture, we feed, we cultivate—all to develop strong roots. Sharing our value system with our children is critical to this process. Remember that people pay more attention to what they see as opposed to what they hear. Therefore, if you are a parent who tells your children it is wrong to smoke while toking on your cigarette, know that their interpretation will likely be different from what you are verbally espousing.
A developmental task of adolescence is separation and individuation, when children attempt to separate themselves from their parents to an extent. It can be a very frightening time for parents—what can we do? This is the time for the second parental gift: wings. We want to give our children gradual “flying” lessons. Children are not ready to go from the total and complete shelter of their parents’ protection to being absolutely out on their own. This must be a gradual process.
In her book Peaceful Parenting, Dr. Nancy Buck says it best: “We limit freedom for as long as it takes to teach responsible behavior and then we give back the freedom.” We want our children learning the precarious process of making decisions while they are still under our protection.
The perfect time to give our children more room in the process of deciding what their own set of values will be is during their teenage years. If you have truly nurtured their roots and can handle this next part with minimum confrontation, then the value process will go smoothly. In times of difficulty, try to remember when you were their age; your teen is doing nothing different than you did. Your teen is wrestling with your values just as you wrestled with your parents’ values. You may argue that your value system works best, so your teen needs to see things the same way you do. However, the reality is that you cannot know what is best for another person, including your children. You are not them. You do not occupy their skin. Only they can truly decide what is best for themselves, and they alone will have to live with the consequences of their decisions.
I remember when my oldest son was sixteen and working as a waiter in a local diner. He confronted a customer over a racial remark the customer made. While I was extremely proud that my son stood up for equality and fairness, I was mortified by the immature locker room behavior he displayed! No, I will not print exactly what he did, but I’ll admit it was not a proud maternal moment.
My son and I had several conversations about this incident over the next few days and I was unable to get him to understand that what he had done was inappropriate. Finally, he said to me, “Mom, I know you want me to say that I was wrong, but I’m not ashamed of what I did. In fact, I would do exactly the same thing if the situation presents itself again.” Wow, I guess he told me!
I had to practice what I preach. His value system was not matching up with mine. It was very clear to me that he was “wrong,” however, in his world at that time, he did the “right” thing for him. When you give your child wings, you need to allow them to do things their own way, even if you are sure a better way exists. You can offer suggestions, but then get out of the way. Allow your child to make the decision and then, manage the resulting consequences.
This process helps our children become better decision makers: discussing all the choices that exist and examining the pros and cons of each choice. After that, we must step back and allow our children to make the decision that’s right for them. Later, we can talk to them about how things worked out without protecting them from the consequences of their decisions. That is where the learning takes place.
You are there to support them and help them manage the consequences, but don’t intervene on their behalf and also, don’t assume that “I told you so” attitude. All that teaches your child is to not come and talk things over with you anymore.