Gaining the confidence to give children freedom

I found myself cringing when I thought of writing about overparenting because I struggle against overparenting on a daily basis. I know that children need freedom to make choices and have experiences so that they can become confident and independent adults. I also know that my daughters are intelligent and thoughtful people. They are very capable of being given age-appropriate freedoms. Even so, I must constantly check my internal desire to control every aspect of their lives. It helps so much that my husband is very natural about giving freedoms and responsibilities to our girls, and he is very encouraging in helping me feel confident about it.

When I find myself wanting to overparent and examine my motivation, I am usually not worried about how my girls will handle responsibilities or danger. I am usually worried about how others will view my parenting. I feel like I will be seen as a bad mother if I give the girls too many freedoms. When I expect my girls to fulfill what I know are maturity-appropriate responsibilities for each of them, I fear that I will be seen by other parents as lazy or uninvolved. Again my husband’s encouragement and leadership is of such value in the daily struggle with this, but it is also a constant exercise of prayer and looking to God’s Word. In the words of my heavenly Father, I find the confidence to give my children freedom.

I can trust God. My children belong to the Lord. They are his. My hope comes from the Lord. My hope for my children is the eternal hope of heaven. This is the crux of my purpose as a parent. I want to share my hope in Christ with my children on a daily basis. What a better way than to live each day with confidence that the same Lord who loved them enough to send his Son to die also has a plan for each of them!

I can foster responsibility. When my girls experience pain and heartache and hard days, I want to jump in and fix things for them. When my girls neglect responsibilities or are just plain sinful, my mother’s heart wants to intervene so that they don’t suffer consequences. A part of me also wants to do it so that I don’t look bad. Yet I know that God will work through my daughters’ natural consequences (and my own discomfort).

How do I know if this a moment that needs intervention or a moment that needs a silent and prayerful mother? When I take a deep breath, talk with my husband, and take some time for prayer, it becomes easier to evaluate the situation. If the issues at stake are not ones that endanger the children’s physical or spiritual safety, we try to let the girls take care of it independently. Sometimes this is painful, but it is equipping our children to handle the ups and downs of life with trust in their God.

Finding the middle ground

Paul, my son-in-law, and I sat together on a park bench.  His kids played around us.

“It’s sad,” I said. “Kids aren’t free to be kids like I was in the 1950s.”

My Baby Boom buddies and I lived under the neighborhood rule, “Never go beyond earshot of your parents’ shouts.” But within that radius, we could be kids. The lightly traveled street was our playground. The large sugar maples sheltered our clumsily-built forts. The sidewalks were bicycle raceways. Parental interference was minimal.

“Today it’s helicopter parents,” Paul said, “parents who hover over their kids . . . well into adulthood.”

Overprotection does seem to be today’s parenting strategy. No matter how safe the neighborhood, some parents can’t envision their kids playing outside alone. No matter how old their children, these parents intrude on their lives. No matter how culpable their kids, some parents insist someone else is at fault.

“It’s not good for parents to protect kids from everything,” Paul continued. “Kids need to know our world will rough them up now and again. They need to learn their actions have consequences. They need to be held responsible for their choices.” I almost hugged him, but I settled for a manly double thumbs-up.

We scanned the playground, accounting for our kids. My four-year-old grandson had been crawling within a tubular play area that looked like a cross between a 20-foot-long anteater and a sailing ship. When an older child climbed on top of the tubes, Thatcher followed.

“Many parents view their children as fine china that chips and easily shatters,” I said.  “They don’t realize kids are Corelle ware that bounces and rarely breaks. Their fears insist that every situation is dangerous. Their fears drain confidence from their kids. Their fears stymie their children’s independence.”

“There must be a balance, though,” Paul countered, “a middle ground between the extremes of free-range parenting and overprotective parenting. What’s hard is knowing if you are standing in that middle. Look at Thatcher.” Thatcher’s feet dangled two feet above the ground as he attempted to dismount from the anteater. “Where’s the middle ground? Do I let him fall or do I help him down?”

That middle ground can be hard to find. But the ultimate parent has provided us with a map for finding it.

In his Word we see our Father’s parenting strategy; even better, we see the cross-won grace that directs it. Whether he snatches us from the consequences of our mistakes or allows bruised-knee lessons, God’s parenting flows from an open-spigot love we never deserve. Christian parents stand on that middle ground when they love their children in the same way. When grace determines whether they rescue their children or allow a tough life lesson.

And Paul? He helped Thatcher down. Then he set him free to clamber over the anteater again.

Overparenting or just parenting?

Are we overparenting our kids? This sounds like such a simple question, yet I’m struggling to put an answer into words. I’ve asked many friends who are also parents about this issue. Most were in agreement that, yes, to some degree, overparenting is common today. But I’m having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly overparenting is and whether it’s a good or bad thing that it seems to be the trend.

In my eyes, overparenting is being too overprotective, too helpful, too quick to jump in and do for my kids instead of letting them figure out their own problems. Basically, I see it as being so involved in my children’s business that they are deprived of the freedom to learn how to do things for themselves. Hover, smother . . . oh, brother.

Almost every mom I spoke with about this topic admitted to overparenting their kids at some point or in some circumstance. I over-involve myself in conflict management between my kids. The temptation is to keep my kids from having to face difficulties so I step in and solve their problems for them. Of course I want them to learn how to solve their own problems, but I tend to jump in a little too early to help them “work it out.” I’m working on that (especially since I’d like to hang up this referee whistle I seem to be sporting so often).

Other friends mentioned the fear of predators and constant bombardment of horrific news stories involving kids as a source for their overprotectiveness. What is the right age to let our kids play outside alone? Have we had the “tricky people” conversation enough that they’ll remember what to do if a situation arises? I don’t think there’s a universal right answer here. Since I’m the one who knows my kids best, it’s up to me to make those calls for them. That is both comforting and frightening.

Parenting is not the cakewalk I imagined it to be. Before I had kids, I was the world’s best mom. I knew exactly how my kids would behave and what they would NEVER do in public (are you rolling your eyes yet?). My child would never wear bunny slippers with a sundress in July (false) or use the safety scissors for anything other than cutting paper (false—the cat had a lovely spikey ’do after an impromptu visit to the toddler salon) and my kids would never, ever have a meltdown in public (FALSE, on more occassions than I can count). These tiny humans are blessed with BIG personalities from an early age. All of my “alwayses” and “nevers” went straight out the window when those personalities came into play. I learned to pick my battles and be flexible whenever possible.

So, are we overparenting our kids? Possibly, but I’m inclined to just call it parenting. It feels very judgmental to say we’re overparenting, when I really only know my situation. At this point, for my young kids, I have to weigh their safety (and that of others) against the benefits of letting them experiment with their freedom. Sometimes that means letting Henry climb the rope ladder at the playground without hovering underneath him with arms outstretched or trusting Anna to grab a gallon of milk while Henry and I wait by the cereal. I hope my kids look back as adults and see that I tried my best to give them freedom while keeping them safe, even if that meant being too in their business sometimes.