The Missing Ingredient in Today's Parenting Journey
In recent years, I’ve spent countless hours with groups of parents, faculty, coaches and youth workers. Each conversation becomes a candid disclosure of the fears, the struggles and the preoccupation adults have with today’s youth. It has become clear that over the course of their kids’ childhood, parents experience various stages as they guide and lead their child. (For that matter, so do teachers). In each stage, their focus shifts. While the shifts are natural, they can lead to challenges in the relationship. If you are a parent, recognizing the stages may prove to be helpful to your own self-awareness. If you’re a teacher, coach, youth worker or employer, these stages might explain why your young people think and act the way they do.
Stage One: Inspecting
This initial stage in our parenting journey begins at day one. We examine our new baby, bring her home and begin sizing up her features, traits and apparent strengths. It’s normal for parents to do this. After all, they started the whole thing nine months earlier. Sometimes, however, Mom and Dad can go nuts, over-analyzing every cough, quirk, twist and turn. Parents must work to remain balanced.
Too much inspecting can push parents to compare and compete with other families, identifying deficits or advantages in their findings. This can lead to unhealthy distraction from the goal of simply loving and raising a child.
Stage Two: Correcting
Stage two is all about our bent to remedy any problems that arise in the first year or two. In fact, this stage doesn’t end for years, maybe decades. Out of love and concern for their child, parents can get preoccupied with rectifying all wrongs and improving traits so their child will experience the advantages he or she deserves. This can lead to obsessive behavior. Moms and Dads just want the best for their kids, right?
Too much correcting can make a young child feel as though they don’t measure up to their parent’s standards. They can feel inadequate, unloved or even disapproval and sink into mild cases of depression or melancholy, withdrawing from others.
Stage Three: Protecting
At stage three, the child has usually begun school and parents begin focusing on keeping their child safe and secure. They’re protecting the investment. This is the first time that the children are separated from their parents for significant lengths of time. While it’s normal for us to safeguard our kids from harm—we can go overboard with helmets, kneepads, safety belts, cell phones and background checks.
Too much protecting can stunt a child’s growth. Kids need to experience appropriate levels of risk and failure in order to mature in a healthy way. Too often we prepare the path for the child instead of the child for the path.
Stage Four: Neglecting
By this stage, the child has entered their “tween” or even teen years and begins to feel like an alien around the house. When parents don’t quite know what to do with their “new” kid, they often back off or back down from offering clear leadership. We fear the unknown. And while we never want to appear “uncool”, failing to be “hip” to culture can cause parents to neglect to ask significant questions.
Too much neglecting communicates we aren’t engaged. Kids can confuse this with both ignorance and apathy. Funny. It was easy to raise these kids when they were young; now we hardly recognize them. This stage calls for a new kind of leader in our parenting.
Stage Five: Suspecting
Parents enter stage five, as their kids experience adolescence. Their child may have pushed to enter adolescence at eight years old, but now their hormones have caught up. Moms and dads get suspicious over the secrecy or strange new habits and styles in their kids. Innocence is replaced by savvy lifestyles and a new vocabulary. Without a plan, parents and kids divide and separate in this stage of estrangement.
This kind of suspicion can breed distrust. The distrust may be well deserved, but communication is key during the teen years—even over-communication. Parents must create safe environments to converse and explore a new stage of relationship.
Stage Six: Resurrecting
Finally, as the child enters college or shows signs of wanting to separate from Mom and Dad’s leadership, parents seek to resurrect the relationship, at any cost. They want to stay close. They fear losing touch. The distancing is natural for a youth and the clinging may feel natural for an adult, but parents must navigate this stage with wisdom. We must not compromise values or identity just to keep life happy.
This is a crucial stage for parents to journey through successfully. Just like teaching them to ride a bike, we must blend support with letting go. It’s important to relate to kids in a new way, and still act as a mentor during their young adult years.
So, What Is Missing?
No doubt, every adult-child relationship is unique. The stages above, however, are remarkably common, for caring adults in the home, classroom or athletic field. For many, there’s an important ingredient missing from these stages. It is conspicuously absent and its absence explains why lots of teens fail to mature into healthy adults.
What have we left out as we help them mature? In a word: Expecting.
I believe we have under-challenged kids with meaningful work to accomplish. We have overwhelmed them with tests, recitals and practices—and kids report being “stressed out” by these activities. But they are virtual. Adults often fail to give work to students that is relevant to life—work that could actually improve the world if they rose to the challenge. We just don’t expect much of our kids today. Evidently, we assume they’re incapable. Instead of rising to our expectations, they stoop. They fill their day with video games, texts, YouTube and Snapchat. And their potential goes untapped. One hundred years ago—seventeen year olds were leading armies, working farms, and learning a trade as apprentices. Kids could hardly wait to enter the world of adult responsibility. Today—this is rare.
South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin, summarized it best recently:
“You know what makes me sick to my stomach? When I hear grown adults say that kids have changed. Kids haven’t changed . . . We’ve changed as adults. We make their lives easier instead of preparing them for what life is truly about. We’re the ones who have changed.”
Frank and his team made the Final Four. He may be on to something.