Parental instincts are wonderful and God-given. Naturally, we love, protect, teach, bond with and provide for our children as best we can. However, sometimes we can misuse our parental privilege by rescuing our children from consequences and as a result, end up harming them.
Of course, I am not referring to keeping children out of harm’s way. What I am referring to though is habitually rescuing them from painful consequences that could help them to grow up. Healthy parental instincts work toward what is best for the child today –and in the long-term. Even if best means suffering a little in the short-term.
For example, when we speak instruction to our children, our words can easily go in one ear and out the other. You know the deal: brushing and flossing teeth to avoid the discomfort of getting cavities; wearing sunscreen to prevent the pain of sunburn; waiting for the pizza to cool so tongues don’t get burned. As parents, we can repeat the instruction to them until we’re blue in the face.
However, you know as well as I do that once the child experiences for herself the painful consequences of failing to follow instruction, voila! We never have to say another word about it. Why not? Because the pain of cavities, sunburn, and burned tongues speaks louder than our words do. Thus, a little suffering is a healthy and necessary part of growing up.
Two of our children I rescued on occasion in elementary school. After feeling uneasy about the situation I sifted through my soul and figured out that the urge to rescue originated with their inheritance of my forgetfulness gene. The problem was that I had harbored subconscious guilt about it. However, I finally came to realize that of course, I had nothing at all to do with which genes were passed down to them. That was God land! I was off the hook. It then hit me that the world wasn’t going to grant them slack and neither should I if I wanted them well prepared for it.
So before the oldest entered sixth grade, I told them all that they would be solely responsible for getting all their work to school on time. I would not be bringing anything to school anymore no matter the sob story. Even though it felt cruel to me at the time, I knew it was best for them in the long run. Instead of taking the work to school, I learned to empathize with them as they told me about the frustration or embarrassment they experienced that day. At the same time I used the consequences as a teaching tool to help them learn a better way offering to help them set up a solid system to prevent them from forgetting again.
When we care more about the immediate grade than the long-term consequences of the grade in their lives, we need a perspective check. Our harmful behaviors can masquerade as parental instincts hiding our need to be needed or our guilt about genes passed down while enabling the child to continue the same pattern of failure. We must examine our motives.
Could we be living our lives vicariously through our children?
Could we have unfinished business from our childhoods?
Could we be lost in the superficiality of appearances and what others might think?
Could we have forgotten about the deeper issues concerning character and life principles?
One way to tell if we’re on track is to examine our perspective: short-term focus and keeping everyone happy is usually all about ourselves whereas long-term focus and willingness to suffer a little is more about the betterment of our children.
If we feel uncomfortable at the thought of our children growing up to be healthy and independent, then we may have deeper issues of wanting to be needed. If we try to get those needs met by feeding our children’s need for us to rescue them, we are in reality smothering them with our own selfishness.
An extreme example of using a child at her expense to meet our need to be needed would be giving a drug-addicted teen cash whenever she asked for it. We would be meeting our need to be needed by enabling her to need us, harming her by allowing her access to drugs, and avoiding facing the necessary changes we needed to make to get our needs met in a healthy way. The drug money example is upsetting because the scars of violation and injustice are immediately apparent to us. Other situations may seem benign, but are usually not because the scars just take longer to manifest.
In my parenting I had to separate the protective and provisional parental instincts from the enmeshment and enablement tendencies. The former were fostering independence while the latter would have stifled my children from growing up to be healthy adults. Instead of teaching them to rely on me, I taught them to develop systems to help them remember due dates. Kind of like teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish.
Once I had set reasonable standards then followed through on them I could see the stability that provided for them. Instead of enabling forgetfulness, I was empowering independence. Even though the circumstances challenged me at the time, I am so glad I let them suffer a little then because I can see today that it has paid off greatly in their favor.
Even after two of our children have moved out, I know I don’t have to constantly check up on them. I encourage them often and am confident in them and their learning curves in remembering the poor decisions they have made in the past and the consequences they will have to live with as a result. They have living inside their hearts the Holy Spirit and everything I have taught them, and they have my prayers which surround them forever.
If our children choose to make poor decisions, I don’t have to provide the consequences anymore like I did when they were little because as long as I am not interfering, life will deliver the consequences. They know that, for example, if they should so choose to befriend undesirables, participate in illegal activities and end up in jail, they will be checked in there for as long as the law requires. They are also aware of the two-by-four God has used on my husband from time to time. Needless to say, they do carry his genes.
The takeaway principle is as follows: whatever a child sows that should he reap with parental support and encouragement. It’s that simple. Sowing and reaping are God’s natural teaching tools. Let’s release enmeshment and enablement and embrace growth allowing God’s teaching tools to apply freely in our own lives and in the lives of our children for the betterment of us all now and in the long haul.
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.