Have you ever had one of those conversations where you don’t know what you are going to say until you say it, and you don’t realize how true it is until it’s out of your mouth?
That happened to me recently.
I was talking to a sweet young woman whom I mentor, listening intently as she described what sounded like typical, teenage woes: her parents don’t understand her, the leash they have her on is too tight, and they don’t trust her to make her own decisions. I remember feeling that way myself once, but what came out of my mouth surprised me.
“Karen (name changed), I’m going to tell you something that I didn’t understand when I was in high school. It’s really scary to be a parent.”
I told her that I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that her parents love her with a love that she may not understand until she is a parent. It’s a love that wants to tighten, not loosen, its grip; to shelter instead of set free.
We talked about the world of social media, and how difficult it is for adults to navigate, let alone adolescents who are still figuring out who they are. We also chatted about the news, and how seemingly every other story is about bullying leading to suicide.
We prayed together and made an appointment to chat again soon, and for the rest of the evening, I replayed our conversation over and over again in my mind.
It’s really scary to be a parent.
I live in Flower Mound, Texas, a pleasant little suburb in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex that boasts exemplary schools and a population of approximately 65,000. Big, yes, but I still see someone I know nearly every time I’m out.
We are not immune to hardship and heartbreak when it comes to our school-aged kiddos. Since the 2016 school year began we’ve heard frightening reports of cyberbullying, hook-up culture, alcohol, drugs that I’ve never heard of until last month, and even suicide.
What are we, as parents, do to?
Perhaps the answer lies not in doing more, but in doing less.
As a product of the low-self-esteem and every-kid-needs-a-trophy generation, I find that my greatest areas of past personal weaknesses provide the greatest potential for parenting mistakes that could, if left unchecked, lead my children down unhealthy paths. Because I was insecure, I want to do everything under the sun to make my children feel secure. Because I know how much it hurts to fall, I want to swoop in and catch my children the second they start to stumble. So instead of finding new ways to shore up our walls, let’s examine our motivation for wanting to.
We don’t know what to do with pain.
When we view pain as the enemy instead of part of a process, we fear it. In one sense that’s a good and healthy thing. We learn not to touch a hot stove when we burn our hand.
In another sense, this causes some very real problems.
Instead of learning to process through pain, we avoid it at all costs. As parents, we have nothing but the best of intentions when we march across the playground to have a little chat with the parent of the kid who’s leaving our child out. Some little squirt is hurting our baby’s feelings, by golly, and we’re going to do something about it.
The problem is this: If we are handling it, our children are not. We unwittingly rob them of the ability to navigate normal life issues by plucking them from their pain and sparing them from it.
Scripture counsels us otherwise:
My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.
—James 1:2–4 NET
In a Kingdom economy, pain serves a higher purpose. The Lord uses trials and troubles to strengthen our faith. When our faith is strengthened, our endurance is, too. The Lord’s way is right and good, even when we can’t understand it, and that means if He uses trials and pain to perfect us, it’s because it works.
Parenting through the lens of fear pulls our kids out of pain’s way under the faulty guise of protecting them, when, in the long run, it does exactly the opposite.
What if, instead of sheltering them from trouble, we simply walked with them through it?
We don’t know how to process pain.
As a recovered alcoholic, I feel this more acutely. We, as a society, are experts at anesthetizing, but when pain slaps us in the face and sticks, we have no idea what to do with it.
So we drink.
Or take a few of our kid’s ADHD pills.
Or look at porn.
Or stay late at the office. Again.
You get the picture.
Here in America, we are not good at feeling pain. Think of the last funeral you went to. How many times did the pastor or speakers talk about a celebration of life? When the deceased was ninety-seven, totally appropriate. When he was a forty-two-year-old married father of three, no.
If we can’t process through our pain, feeling the appropriate emotions and allowing the grief cycle its time, we will never be able to help our children through the difficulties the adolescent and teenage years bring.
We don’t allow our kids to fail.
Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, says that parents who deny their children a chance to fail are creating “a really helpless culture of kids so that now when I talk to college professors, they say these kids show up to college unable to handle anything on their own.”
Failure is not something to be feared. It is a tool that we must take advantage of. We have no better guideposts that our failures and mistakes, and the more painful they are, the faster we learn.
We feel compassion because we once felt marginalized. We bring meals to our sick friends because we know how hard it is to care for your family when you are under the weather. We issue invitations because we remember how it feels to be left out. Our life’s purpose is often born out of our painful pasts. Let’s not rob our children of the opportunity to grow.