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Spiritual Practice of Parenting: Loosening my Grip

April 8, 2014

When we were at family camp a couple of weekends ago, I went to the parent devo (devotional for all of us older folks).  As is often the case, I found the crack where the light gets in (to quote Leonard Cohen’s Anthem) to be the comments of some parents instead of the words of the pastor.

In the Atlantic a few weeks ago, there was an article about parenting, specifically about parenting out of fear and over protection.  The author described a place in North Wales, Great Britain called “The Land.”  Kids from the community are allowed to go there without parental supervisor (there is one play worker who is on site to assist as necessary) and create, experiment, and imagine.  This playground isn’t made up of soft surfaces and safe playground equipment.  Instead, the kids play with old tires, boards, retired furniture, and boxes.  Making fires in the fire pit is an acceptable activity for kids.  Sounds unsafe, right?  The synopsis of the article was this:  We are hampering our children’s creativity and independence by managing, scheduling, hovering, and protecting them. (To check out the article, click here.  It’s long, but well worth reading).

One woman at the parent devo referenced this article and another father added his perspective.  It is better, he said, to let our kids take chance and make mistakes now (in the elementary school years) so they have the opportunity to learn how to make good choices.  The risks associated with bad choices now aren’t quite as life changing as some of those choices they are making in middle school, high school (driving a car!!), and college.

As I listened and later read the Atlantic article I thought, “Do I agree or disagree with this?”  and “How does this affect how I am parenting?”  Like so many other middle class parents, I worry and have the tendency to try to control situations my children are involved in.  When we go to the park or someone’s house, I have a hard time letting my middlest in particular play because I worry he will play too rough and hurt someone else.  (He never has seriously hurt someone, by the way.  It was my oldest, my daughter, who broke someone’s collarbone when he came to our house.)  I listen in to their words and remind them all to be gentler.  I make sure my kids always wear their bike helmets when they ride their bikes, don’t climb to high up trees, don’t go around the block by themselves, and am hesitant to let them ride in the back of the truck down a river bed.

Am I really helping my kids though?


Last weekend, we went camping.  It was a one nighter, so our campsite choices were limited.  We took the site that was given to us and I was unsure at first.  There was huge granite rock right next to the tent pad with few trees (no good climbing trees) and minimal grassy areas.  It was one night and what was available, so that’s where we were.

The kids were absolutely thrilled with the place.  There was a path leading out of the back of the campsite they wanted to explore.  I took a deep breath, told them to stick together and said, “Ok.”  After a bit, they returned, found the hammer, and started busting rocks (no, we didn’t have safety goggles either).  Curtis and I sat by the fire and read our books.  Occasionally I would listen in and hear words like, “pirates,”  “brother and sis,” and know that while the kids were right next to us, they were deep within their own world.  I relaxed into not actively supervising them and realized it was all good.  My kids were old enough to explore together and play together (they’re almost 9, 7, and almost 5).  When we took a picture in the evening light, Curtis told them to sit on a big rock.  “That’s the castle,” John told us.  Saturday night, our kids had their picture taken in the castle.

The Castle

The Castle

Our good moods extended the rest of the weekend.  Before we left for camping, the kids were picking at each and unhappy.  I can’t imagine what our day would have been like if we hadn’t gone camping. (Well, actually I can.  We’ve done that day too many times).  After we got home, Curtis was cleaning out his shop (aka the garage).  John and some of the neighbor kids were making “tea.”  Isaac was making a launcher for a soccer ball in the back of the pick up truck.  Everyone was so happy and none of the adults were interacting much with kids.

I learned years ago my kids are happiest when I am not with them all the time.  When Madeleine gets into her dark moods, the best thing for her is for her to find something to do by herself.  Her something else can involve her brothers, but it can’t involve adults.  She needs to imagine, create, explore, and experiment on her terms, not according to adults.  John has always searched this out.  They don’t really need as much as we would like to believe.

Raising kids is all about loosening our grip on them.  We need to let them make mistakes.  We need to let them fail and suffer the natural consequences of their choices.  We need to encourage them to do hard things, knowing we are behind them, but that we will not do it for them.  Being parents mean that walking around in this world are beings that can break our hearts in ways that are unimaginable.  Tightening our grip on them doesn’t help them grow into responsible, caring, generous adults.  Things still happen to our kids that we can’t control–they’re behind in their language development or reading, they have life threatening food allergies, they become sick with cancer, they are hurt in accidents we can’t control, or their little bodies fail to grow and develop like they should.  Tightening our grip doesn’t make them safer.  All it does is make us think we are in control.  We’re not though.  No matter how much we wish we were in control, we are not.  Our hearts will probably break a hundred times because we can not keep our children safe, no matter how hard we try.

Since we don’t have The Land in our neighborhood (I suspect the whole idea of that would appall our homeowner’s association), I need to learn to loosen my grip in other ways.  I need to give my children the independence they crave.  I need to take a deep breath, tell them to stick together, and let them go explore this world.  When they do, they may find castles or pirates or rocks that need busting.  I need to say a prayer for courage to let them go and become the people they were created to be.

Rock busting.

Rock busting.

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