Photo Credit: Zanastardust on Flickr
Some kids eat plain Cheerios for breakfast. Some kids are allowed to eat Froot Loops. The Cheerios kids look at the chemically-colored-sugar-bomb set and wish their moms were more lenient. The Froot Loop crowd is so hopped up on high fructose corn syrup that they can’t think straight, but after they have grown up maybe they ride the pendulum to the opposite extreme and only feed THEIR kids breakfast disks made from organic dandelion greens and mung bean sprouts.
You know the accepted wisdom: if you keep your kid from sugar cereals, when he goes to college he’ll make healthy choices. Except we all know the kid who got to the dining hall and went completely nuts at the all-you-can-eat sugar cereal dispenser. Maybe you were that kid.
I’m sure you can think of children from strict families who turned out great, and kids from strict families who totally bombed. Likewise you probably know kids from lenient families that became swell adults and children from lenient families that are trainwrecks. When it comes to parenting, I think it’s dangerous to be too prescriptive. Outward conformity doesn’t necessarily indicate a heart that’s in the right place.
As a parent who grew up in a Cheerio household, took a detour into Froot Loop territory, then came back to the Cheerio crowd, I wonder what I ought to be doing with respect to my own kids. I’ve only been parenting a little over four years, but I’ve been pondering this issue much longer. These are the things I’ve come up with, but I’d love to hear what you do, especially if you do something totally different:
- I try not to make my answers “Because I said so.” Sometimes when kids are young they need to know that no means no and obey means right now with no back talk, but I also think it’s important for even very small children to begin to learn the reasons we live how we live and say what we say. If my main defense is “because I said so” then I’m not giving my child a lot to stand on when he finds out that other parents don’t say anything of the sort.
- Get to the root. Just as “because I said so” isn’t a great response to why you eat Cheerios, “because it’s healthy” isn’t much more helpful. What does being healthy mean? Why do you think it’s important to be healthy? Why are Cheerios a good means to healthiness? What happens when you eat sugar cereal? Why is that not a good alternative? What about Froot Loop eaters who appear healthy, and why do some Cheerio eaters seem unhealthy? I am not as consistent at this as I’d like to be, but I am trying to make sure that I address the root of the issues that come up with my kids. It’s hard, and I can’t imagine how much harder it is as your kids get older.
- Be mindful of what example I’m setting. Are some laws negotiable? Are there flexible codes of conduct? Are some things true in one context but not another? I’ve been thinking about how what my kids see me do and how they see me act are more important than what they hear me say. How about following the speed limit? So your kid grows up his whole life seeing Mom and Dad violate traffic laws and rarely get caught or suffer any ill effects, what does that teach him about other laws that people seem to view as optional? Oh, but I only go 5 miles over the limit, I tell myself. But what’s the difference really?
- Accept that I am not a puppet master. Even if I could teach my kids all the right lessons and give them all the right tools, in the end they will still be individuals. Sometimes they make good choices and sometimes they make bad choices and I don’t control their hearts. Although it’s hard for me to live this out since I have a tendency to want to be in control, ultimately I think you have to do the best you can, pray for your kids, and trust that God is sovereign.
Obviously this concept has a wider and deeper applicability than choice of breakfast cereals. One of my main struggles in parenting little children is identifying what it is most important to focus on, and how to deal with the root cause rather than the surface issue. Going through our habits of character list and verses has helped me think of ways to apply Scripture to daily situations, but I’m far from consistent.
How do you (or how did your parents, if you don’t have your own kids) prepare your children to make good choices? Where do you fall on the strict vs. not-so-strict continuum and why?