A friend recently invited a group of women over for an evening. We sat around the living room together – sharing hors d’oeuvres and our hearts. The casual ice breaker question opened us up more than had been intended. Our conversation included what scares us, experiences we have lived through, and cultivating character in our children. These are subjects most of us rarely speak about, yet they are the details of life we long for someone else to know, to hear, to see, and to love us through.
One brave young mom spoke up, “I’m so afraid my kids will go down a path that leads them into hardship as they grow older.” Oh, girl! I hear you. Some of us in the room have been through very difficult roads in our parenting journeys. We comforted her and listened. As wisdom and encouragement flowed towards her, I sat thinking of the way fear can creep into motherhood, suffocating us and causing us to micromanage and strive for control. Fear of outcomes sure has morphed me into a control freak on more than one occasion.
Raising a Strong-Willed Child
My oldest is a strong-willed child. He’s a deep thinker and feeler, and has a seriously stubborn streak. We joke that he should have been born with a friendly warning label that read, “I will only learn things the hard way.” I get it. That was the method most of my lasting lessons came to me as well.
As a young mom, I feared for him. I didn’t want him to walk away from God, do drugs, have premarital sex, to feel unloved, or (let’s face it) suffer anything I had lived through in my teen years. Without realizing it, I decided I was going to adopt parenting practices that helped me in cultivating character and ensuring his success and safety. While the desire to shelter him is really admirable, you’ll agree it’s highly unrealistic. Yet, I’m sure you may have had some of the same fears and even attempted your own version of self-driven approaches to guarantee positive outcomes.
Over-Parenting in Cultivating Character
We laugh now (my 18 year old son and I) about the lengths I went to as I tried to assure he would be shielded from any harmful influence. He was forbidden from watching Callou, for example. This G-rated children’s show was banned from our home because I was certain the whiny central character would corrupt my son.
Hyper vigilance caused me to screen his friends and limit exposure to anything I thought would derail him. I attempted to mold him in ways I thought would prevent rebellion or wayward choices.
Making Our Child into a Project
When fear reared up, I made my son into a project. You know when parenting efforts felt like weeding a yard with a dandelion infestation. Every time we see a little cluster of weeds pop up, we run over to pick them, and as we do, thousands of little hairlike wisps float away, seeding themselves into the grass to grow new weeds. We try in vain to eliminate sin from our precious children’s hearts.
You might be thinking, “But, aren’t we supposed to train up our children in the way they should go? Isn’t cultivating character our job as parents?” You are right. We parents need to lead our children and help them choose well. The question isn’t whether we have that responsibility. The bigger issue is how we go about fulfilling it.
Do You Focus on Behavior or the Heart?
It’s easy to view our children as if they are reflections of us. When we look at them as though the outcomes of their lives are a report card on the type of parent we are, we become easily embarrassed of their behavior. We quickly jump at any sign of misconduct or poor attitude, trying to ensure they make us look good.
We can’t focus on our children’s behaviors and their hearts at the same time. I know you want to cultivate something much deeper as you parent. When you look at roots of what is causing a behavior, address your child’s hidden needs, and maintain a nurturing relationship, you nourish your children in hidden places. Good behavior is fruit of a deeper wellspring within your child – just as it is in you.
The Most Influential Parenting Approach
Modeling is one of the biggest ways our children learn how to go through life. They watch us when we are angry, tempted, tired, overwhelmed, or challenged, and they take subconscious notes. What we do in response to life shows them “how it’s done.”
If I want my children to be patient, I can either focus on them and their behavior, or I can focus on mine. If I reprimand them every time, the change in them will be temporary. On the other hand, consider this. Nothing is more powerful than their own mom showing patience or practicing other virtues and positive habits. When I get to my wits end, how I act teaches my children more about patience (or lack of it) than any attempts I make to form their heart through imposed rules and guidelines. The old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is purely wishful thinking.
Right about now you might be having scary flashbacks to moments when you lost your temper and not only hurt your children’s hearts, but set an example you regret. You know me well enough to know I’m not here to dish out guilt and shame. Far from it. We are talking about learning from what we’ve done and deciding to grow forward. Set aside past errors and move into what you can do.
The Mirror is Your Greatest Tool
I’m telling you, the mirror truly is your greatest parenting tool. You can ask God, “Search me, and know me, test my heart and show me any hurtful or anxious way.” Instead of trying to manage our children’s response to frustration, we can spend effective time working on our own patterns and the triggers that drive us to act the way we do. The more each of us cultivates trust in our individual relationship with God, the more we will be the examples we want to be.
Self-examination holds the key. Abiding in God’s love, and cultivating character (our own!) is truly the quickest way to influence our children and their futures. We can’t guarantee outcomes – even if we master our own habits and reaction patterns. But, looking at ourselves instead of allowing fear to drive us into micromanagement and helicopter parenting can only bless our children in the long run.
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Leslie Newman says
Patty, thank you for this perspective. I look back at my own experiences raising two now adult children and see some of myself in the things you shared. Looking into the mirror is one of the best tools!
Thank you for affirming this, Leslie. I hear the sweetness of freedom from regret in you. I think that comes with us growing as moms. We learn our true limitations and we see the beautiful and loving hand of God working in their lives. I know you would attest that motherhood doesn’t end at age 18 or necessarily get easier. It just gets different. I am so grateful you came by today to read and respond.
This resonated with me so much. I am a fairly new momma—-I have a 3 year old (and strong willed) daughter. I’ve had several of the same fears and control you mentioned. I felt a sense of relief when you brought up the beautiful that how our children see us act is the best way we can teach them! I’m curious to hear—-did your son turn out alright? Did he have a lot of heartache? I fear the same for my daughter—-I guess that’s all part of it! Thanks for the encouragement!
Thank you so much for sharing here. I want to answer you in a round-about way because the answers I have are more encouraging and long-lasting (deeper). My son is still finding his way. He’s gone through many hills and valleys. I could not have mustered the proper power, perfect technique, or even bridled my own strong will enough to prevent him having to go through growing pains. What did help was me getting ahold of myself with God. That’s the best we have to offer our kids. I think of the two women who brought their baby to King David to have him discern which one was really the mom. They both had a death grip on the child (claiming him as their own), but the true mom released when she saw her child would be cut in two. We need to surrender like that. Hannah is another great example. She had no children. She promised God to devote Samuel to Him if only He would give her a son. These moms show us the sweetness and blessing of releasing our children. Then we think of Isaac and how Abraham was tested – would he hold onto Isaac after wanting so much for him, waiting for him, sacrificing to have him? He put God first. God provided a ram. Also, the lesson of the rich young ruler is one of detachment and attachment. As we let go, we feel a “death” — because we are falsely feeling we have control and we don’t want to raise our hands and say, “Jesus, take the wheel,” when it comes to driving the outcomes of our children’s lives. But, we need to let Jesus step into the driver seat – and we can take shotgun. He has a place for us in this process of growing up with our children, but it’s not in the driver’s seat.
My son has had heartache. We have had it while raising him. We’ve also had laughter, hugs, connection, and longevity with him. He has made some choices that led down into dark places. He’s faced a lot. We’ve faced it alongside him. I can’t promise what outcomes will be, but the bigger thing (and please know I’m saying this after hard roads), is that I am way nearer to God (and my son) as a result of all we have lived through. Don’t let Satan tempt you to control your children. Use your influence; hold healthy boundaries; love them well; and then know that all those things are contributions. You don’t control this, and that’s actually good news and a relief when you walk through to the other side.
The cross (letting go, sacrifice, surrender, killing off what was) is never comfortable, but it is also not the end. We see the joy set before us. We get to walk into new life and resurrection life and freedom as we take up our crosses. I hope you will come back here and read more of my posts on strong-willed-children and on letting go. You are welcome to subscribe if you want more of this kind of input into your motherhood. I’d love to bless you that way. Also, we have a sweet motherhood group on Facebook called, “The Encouraging Motherhood Community” where we share our mothering journeys. You are welcome to join us!