What Can We Truly Offer Our Children?

There is a clear tension in parenting.  On the one hand, we clearly would do anything for our children.  On the other, we are clearly told not do everything for our children.

Many enjoyed the Depression era movie “Cinderella Man.”  In one touching scene, the father shares his breakfast with his hungry daughter, Rosie, claiming he is “full.”  Of course that connects.  Who would not give their last for their child?

And juxtapose that with the Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 29, verse 19. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”  A very different picture.

Many biblical passages clearly orient us to take care of family.  Many clearly orient us to leave family behind. And there lies the tension, one true 1000′s of years ago and true today as well.  What is Jesus saying?  I believe He is saying, “Family is everything and nothing.  Hold tight and let go.”

Complicating this tension is that our love for our kids feeds certain hopes we have for them.  I know for me and imagine for many readers those hopes are connected to creating safety, security, a known future, and happiness.  In that pursuit we many actually find ourselves unwittingly “metabolizing” our kids anxieties, seeking to save them from the vicissitudes of life.

Lori Gottlieb wrote of this in a recent article in The Atlantic titled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.”  (Link)

But after working with these patients over time, I came to believe that no florid denial or distortion was going on. They truly did seem to have caring and loving parents, parents who gave them the freedom to “find themselves” and the encouragement to do anything they wanted in life. Parents who had driven carpools, and helped with homework each night, and intervened when there was a bully at school or a birthday invitation not received, and had gotten them tutors when they struggled in math, and music lessons when they expressed an interest in guitar (but let them quit when they lost that interest), and talked through their feelings when they broke the rules, instead of punishing them (“logical consequences” always stood in for punishment). In short, these were parents who had always been “attuned,” as we therapists like to say, and had made sure to guide my patients through any and all trials and tribulations of childhood. As an overwhelmed parent myself, I’d sit in session and secretly wonder how these fabulous parents had done it all.

Until, one day, another question occurred to me: Was it possible these parents had done too much?

The answer to the question is that frankly, yes, these parents had done too much. We can mistakenly believe that in working hard for our kids, we can actually give them safety, security, a known future and happiness.   As such we often go overboard in building our child’s self esteem believing that somehow self esteem is the talisman that will ward off all unhappiness.  Well, not true.  Inordinate energy poured into self esteem actually feeds a certain self absorbtion that rapidly morphs into narcissism.

Self absorption simply put does not create happiness.  David Brook’s made note in a recent editorial that in 1950 12% of children said they saw themselves as “very important.”  By 1995 that number had risen to 80%, where it no doubt remains today.  And, this year a University of Michigan study found freshmen stress levels to the highest ever recorded.  Great self imagine?  Overwhelming stress?  It appears to be a non-sequitor but if one thinks for a minute, it actually is perfectly logical.  If I am self absorbed, expecting the world to do my bidding, the world will not cooperate.  The world is not there to serve my ego.  That in turn builds frustration that my plans don’t appear to be the world’s or God’s.

How then do we find a way out.  Start with a simple concept.  Safety, security, a known future, and happiness are not our’s to give.  They are God’s to give, and because they are God’s, it will not look the same as we have it, because we tend to define the above financially, a.k.a. the more stuff I pass on to my kid in the form of material comfort (read cheap plastic crap) the more safe and secure they will be.  God’s currency is somewhat different.

I believe a key “legacy” he calls us as parents to confer, a key “currency” he asks us to give, is Resiliency.  We can help our children build resiliency many ways.  Some noted in Gottlieb’s article included (a) allowing our children to feel anxiety, by giving them a moment to right the ship themselves before we rush in, (b) allowing them to have a sense of “earned accomplishment” in which rewards are legitimate and not mere kindling thrown on the fire to build self esteem, and (c) allowing them to loose. These three are different type of “allowance” then many of us give our kids.  It is one that calls on our kids to “dig deep” in the face of inevitable disappointments of life.

If we allow them to feel anxiety, earn their accomplishments, and loose, we actually create a space where a fourth form of resiliency can enter – centering their life on God.  In so doing, they will learn, they will discover, a new safety, security, known future, and happiness that parents simply cannot supply.  It is grounded on what is most ultimately true, what is most ultimately loving. And, miracle of miracles, in working to re-orient them that direction – towards God – we actually help God in helping them to see family in a far empowered and cherished way because the family is no longer just about them.  There is a bigger picture, a bigger context, as they learn to place happiness somewhere beyond themselves.

So what kind of future do you picture for your kids?  Is it the “Veruca Salt” image from Willie Wonka and the chocolate factory?  A young lady who wanted it all, and wanted it now?

Or is there another picture in your mind?  One of your children as resilient, able to deal with the ups and downs of life with grace, with faith? A picture filled with the fullness of joy Jesus promised – a security, safety, known future, happiness – not of this world but filling this world with light.

For in the end their journey is not, in many ways, ours.  Their success cannot be attributed to you.  And, neither can their failures.  For God is at work underneath it all, underneath your work as parent – something Perfect underneath your blessed imperfection.  That is the big picture. That is where we hold tight.  That is where we are able to let go.

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