I’m sitting in my local playgroup, observing my toddler zipping around the room on a wheeliebug. Like most boys his age, he loves anything on wheels. But eventually he sees me sitting next to the book table and tumbles off his toy, begging me to read to him. Almost immediately, another boy takes the wheeliebug and whisks it away.
My son, not yet old enough to understand the ‘use it or lose it’ rule of playgroup, chases the boy and shoves him off the wheeliebug. The boy doesn’t protest and gets off, allowing my son to re-claim his prize. I am watching, a little horrified, ready to pounce. I’ve got to nip this in the bud. But I notice that the boy, who is older than my son, doesn’t seem to care, and so I don’t intervene. I tell a dad at the playgroup what happened. “Oh, they’ll work it out,” he tells me. “It’s best to just leave them to themselves.”
Perhaps my gut reaction to this scenario resonates with many of you reading this, whether you are a parent or not. Our instinct is to step in at the first sign of conflict and correct the perceived injustice, whether our own child is ‘wronged’ or ‘in the wrong’. From this tiny example of a toddler skirmish, I could, if I wished, escalate intervention to even higher levels as my son grows up – demanding super-safe playgrounds, sorting out his arguments with friends, even doing his schoolwork for him when there’s a chance he might fail – all while perfectly planning out his childhood to avoid as many unpleasant experiences as possible. Being a parent in the 21st century means that, because of social media and access to 24-hour news, we are more aware than ever of what other parents are doing, and also the potential dangers that exist for children. According to one 1971 study conducted in neighbourhoods across the UK, 80 per cent of eight and nine-year-olds walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to nine per cent and has been decreasing ever since.
Again, some of you reading this may think that the schoolwork bit is maybe taking it too far, but otherwise this sounds pretty spot-on. Nobody wants to return to the days of hands-off, tough love parenting, and understandably so. But according to recent articles and studies that have emerged and been shared widely across social media outlets, this kind of over-zealous and over-protective parenting has its costs. It can lead to depression and anxiety when the child leaves home for the first time, and can create adults that have never learned to take risks, solve problems, or deal with normal, everyday frustrations and failures – a recipe for disaster in the world of university and beyond.
As a Christian parent, I want to think about how God wants me to raise my child. But while there are a handful of passages about the relationship between parents and children in the Bible, it seems that he mostly leaves us to use our brains and instincts to figure out this parenting business in a very messy, broken world. So I read these articles and I know they are written by wise, sensible people, and I try to apply what I learn to my own situation.
But I also know that ultimately, my son belongs to God, and God’s vision is bigger than just what I or my husband want our son to be. He’s been given to us for a while, and while we’re an important tool in this process, it’s God that changes him from the inside and makes him a part of His mission, which includes simple things like being kind to others and sharing. I also know that God has given parents wildly different personalities, and He loves seeing these personalities shining through. You want to be a ‘helicopter parent’, or sit and read a magazine at the playground? Be my guest. Plan a first birthday bash to rival a royal wedding, or throw together a box-mix chocolate cake and call it a day? Go for it. Help your kids with their homework because it gives you pleasure to be involved, or leave them to their own devices? So be it. I will tend towards the latter parts of this list of pairs, myself.
But as I set out on this journey that is being a parent, I’m giving myself three rules, and I’d encourage anyone who is dreaming of having a child, about to have one, or is already on this road to keep them in mind while you are reading these articles and studies.
1) As far as is possible, I will not neglect my child.
2) But I also won’t protect him from every failure, disappointment and conflict that life throws his way.
3) Mostly, I will pray like mad that he turns out OK in spite of my inevitable missteps. After all, God is greater than any parenting method. And thank God for that.