How Parental Roles Change
Children don’t always make the best decisions. In fact, they’re pretty terrible at it. As parents, it’s easy to feel as though our role is to bring down the hammer of tyranny and enforce the rules of the house (or else!), but going too far not only strains your relationship with your child, it harms your child’s ability to make good decisions on their own.
As our young ones level up in age, we have to change how we relate to them, which requires adjusting our roles in the relationship.
When It’s Okay to Make All of the Decisions
At three-years-old, children need to be told that power outlets, boiling water, and swimming pools are no-gos. These are binary “safe” or “unsafe” decisions that we make on their behalf so they have the opportunity to grow into productive members of society…hopefully.
The line starts to blur when the decisions are less binary. Is it safe to ride a bike? What about jumping a bike ramp? What about a bike ramp that jumps over five of your friends…or through a ring of fire and over two hungry lions?
Obviously, the lions are overdoing it, but let’s go back to that bike ramp. Who built it? How tall is it? What is it made of? How good of a bike rider are you vs. how good you wish you were?
Most children under the age of twelve have a hard time questioning the hows and whys behind a decision. Something might seem off –– nervousness in the pit of their stomach, a pang of intuition –– but they don’t yet have the mental faculties to consider all angles yet, nor the consequences of those actions. I mean, c’ mon, at eleven I was still contemplating what it would be like to fly off my roof.
Children need us to keep them safe while they’re still learning the basics, but at some point, you making all of the decisions becomes condescending and dangerous.
Our Role as Parents
In those early years, our roles are that of teacher and protector. But sometime in middle school, children decide what sort of person they want to become. For my eldest daughter, and myself as a child, it was smack in the middle of 7th grade.
This is a dangerous time for a pre-teen, as they still don’t demonstrate the ability to consider the consequences, even though they start to form strong opinions about who they are.
I sympathize with my mother, as I decided I was going to be a Street Fighter character around that time (Ryu, my hair wasn’t long enough to be Ken, and nowadays it’s more like Sagat). It started a life and love of martial arts, but considering consequences was not something I have ever been any good at.
Trying to tell someone that they are not allowed to be who they believe they are can create rebellion. It’s at this point in a child’s life that our role as parents switches from teacher/protector to mentor/guide. They want to do things that map to the person they believe they are, but someone needs to remind them of the consequences.
Whatever you do, don’t shut down communications during this period. You do not want other children to be the ones to guide your child through such tumultuous times. Especially as they get older.
Make Good Decisions, or I’ll Make Them For You
Given how independent kids get as they move into their teenage years, outright refusing certain things could make matters worse. That said, there are certain dangers any loving parent will want to protect their children from, no matter how independent they become (drugs and other crimes come to mind).
At this stage, though, they’re almost old enough to move out if they don’t like your particular brand of house tyranny.
To keep them from seeing you as a tyrant –– remember: we want to stay engaged so that we have the opportunity to help them identify negative consequences –– take a more conversational approach while reminding them that you’re still the parent. The way I do that is by using the phrase: “make good decisions, or I’ll have to step in a make them for you.” The message that conveys is “I trust you and value your independence, but if you do something that could have negative consequences that could affect the rest of your life, I will, as a loving parent, step in and protect you.”
Teenagers know they don’t have it all together (it may not seem like it, but a serious conversation will pull it out of them), and they’ll respect you for reminding them that you’ve got their back, but that you’re going to let them give it a go first and see what happens.
Progressively Going More Hands-Off
Let’s get honest for a second: your kids aren’t likely to move out when they turn eighteen. Hell, they may still be raiding your fridge in their mid-twenties. Are you still their parents at this stage? Yes. Is it still your house? Yes. And there are absolutely things in the post-teen years that you have every right to limit coming into your home. But if you adopt a “my house, my rules” approach to everything, including who gets the remote, you’ll drive a wedge in your relationship.
This is probably a good method for dealing with anyone who could make the decision to walk out of your life if they’re sick of how you handle things, but we’ll stick to the parent-child example for the sake of relevance: whenever someone has the option to leave, anything you say regarding changes in their behavior or disagreement with their decisions becomes a single note in the suggestion box, often one of many.
You don’t have a lot of say, legally, morally, or ethically, in how an adult leads their lives. Embrace the suggestion box mentality. Tell them that you disagree, but be willing to provide an alternative decision, or at the very least a reasoning for why you disagree, and respect their ability to disagree and do it anyway. You’re no longer in control at this point.
The Hardest Thing is Letting Go
If you’re anything like me, that last point hits pretty hard. I never want to let my kids go. Right now, I’m fortunate enough to have children in every portion of this spectrum, so I can still go back to my old roles (teacher/protector is most comfortable for my control-freak tendencies).
Our feelings can’t hold back Father Time, however, and one day our kids will grow up. How we handle that, and how we transition our roles as it plays out, will determine the kinds of people we are raising and the quality of the relationships we have with them throughout every stage of their lives.