My friend told me this story a little while ago and I keep thinking about it. I don’t know where it came from, not sure if it is based on a true story or if it’s more of a fable. But either way I think it illustrates a really good point so I’m telling it here. And also giving you fair warning that I’m not going to tell it as beautifully as my friend told me, but here’s to trying.
There was once a family trying to escape a terrible situation during World War II. Through some sort of miraculous means they were able to escape a dangerous situation and had to travel through a forest in order to get to a secure spot for safety. As they ran, the grandfather started to get tired. He was heaving for breath and his daughter was encouraging him, cheering him on as they ran. But he decided he wasn’t going to be able to make it. He didn’t want to risk putting the rest of the family in harm so he told them to go ahead without him. He and his daughter exchanged desperate pleas: she pleaded for him to keep running, he pleaded back that he just couldn’t make it and to save herself and the rest of the family.
So finally she stopped and told him if she was to leave him she wanted him to at least say goodbye to his granddaughter, her baby she was carrying. She carefully handed him that baby and then turned and continued to run. This had the effect the daughter had hoped for. There was no way that grandfather was going to stop if he had to get that baby to safety. So on newfound adrenaline, he ran with all his heart. And the whole family was able to make it to safety.
The point of that story is that sometimes handing off the responsibility makes all the difference in motivation and drive. Sometimes as parents we need to “hand off that baby” a little more often. We live in a generation of coddlers, so tethered to our children, often even into teen and adult years.
My brother Tal has a masters degree positive psychology and I love that he taught me about the “locus of control” which is defined by Psychology Today as “an individual’s belief system regarding the causes of his or her experiences and the factors to which that person attributes success or failure.” I like this little diagram I found online to explain it a little better:
Sure it’s from debtdiscipline.com, but my brother described it more in terms of parenting which, of course, I loved. (We had this discussion after my little class about raising teenagers which I talked about back HERE….and I think that wise brother of mine will be doing a guest post on this blog about this some time soon.) Anyway, the idea is that our job as a parent is to help shift the “locus of control” in our children from an external source (their parents) to an internal source (themselves) as they grow and mature.
I think so much more than ever before, we live in a society that just keeps “carrying the baby” ourselves. We coddle our kids in ways our grandparents or even parents never even thought of. Sometimes it’s so hard to let them come up with answers to their own problems. And really, what is the balance? We are the parents after all. Shouldn’t we help guide and direct our kids? That’s our job, right?
But I think we overstep our bounds far too often. We are so worried about everyone “feeling good” and being politically correct that we are losing sight of the fact that those kids of ours become stronger facing tough things.
Oh I’m generalizing, of course. We’re still turning out plenty of resilient, hard-working, accomplished human beings. But there is SO MUCH going on to distract kids from just working hard these days. And we are so careful to help make them shine.
I just finished reading Mao’s Last Dancer (loved it), and man alive, I sure thought a bunch about this while reading that book. It is a true memoir about Li Cunxin, an eleven-year-old boy in impoverished rural Cultural revolutionary China who is selected to be a part of the Beijing Dance Academy. There is so much to talk about from that book, but for today I’ll just say that this kid was taken from his family and he was definitely “given the baby.” He had to choose whether he was going to survive or thrive at such a young age, far away from his family. No coddling going on there. Through a series of events he took on that internal locus of control and decided he was master of his own destiny. He worked his tail off through all different obstacles and made something pretty amazing of his life.
Li did an interview with the New York Times a while back (HERE), and I thought this part was super interesting:
KINETZ — You still teach at the Beijing Dance Academy from time to time. What has changed?
LI — They really can get access to some of the best Western choreography and the students don’t have the same work ethic anymore.
KINETZ — Why?
LI — People have a lot more opportunities. So if it gets too hard they just back off. It’s not the same desperate situation.
I just thought that was interesting. Do we need more “desperate situations” in life? Do we need to, like my mom used to say “hire a wolf to knock at the door”?
I don’t know. Just something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and I love to discuss.
Some notes I’ve taken over the last few months to try to remind myself, totally random but want to keep them all together here, take them for what you will:
Teach kids that they are “self-appointed agents.” THEY are in charge of their destiny. They are not victims of circumstance. What they do right now determines what doors will be open for them.
Change thoughts from “I”m so proud of you!” to “You should be so proud of yourself!”
Tell them things so they’ll tell you things.
Connection is the best app. (yeah, that one’s kind of random, especially when I’m talking about “letting go,” but there’s something about making sure your kids feel that love and connection somehow as they make their own decisions. Li sure felt it even so far away from his family. It was that connection he had with his family, their love running through his blood, that helped him survive.
Dave and I are trying to find a balance with all this as all our kids are growing up. One little example as of late: I had all kinds of inner turmoil about volleyball club tryouts, a parent meeting, all kinds of little things were coming together to help me wrap my brain around the fact that this was happening (club volleyball to take my girl away from me a LOT, even a little bit of Sunday play which we have never had to grapple with before, some loss of balance, etc.). Claire and I had some good conversations as the decision awaited. There are so many more options with girls volleyball than there are with boys! SO much more competitive and intense, at least at the high school level. One of those talks was all three of us (Dave included) sitting on the kitchen counter talking through all the pros and cons, and another I really loved was baking something or other in the kitchen one day talking about how the locus of control is shifting over and encouraging Claire to reach Up as she made her own decision.
Because the final decision really had to be hers. She was the one who would be putting in the work. She was the one who would be pulled much more than we would.
She felt pretty calm about it the whole time though, and when it came to tryouts on Saturday she signed on. The Platinum 16s team with ten of these other girls who are really talented and really kind.
We knew this was going to be an adventure, and so far it has delivered!
As a parent I sometimes think I have all the answers for my kids. But then it’s pretty awesome how this peace can come over you (if you let it…and sometimes I’m pretty defiant against it I have to say!), but that peace can come over you and make you realize that yes, you are “working your way out of a job,” and you’ve got a daughter standing there in front of you who makes some pretty great decisions. Oh, some will backfire to be sure. And our kids will learn from them. Others will make them soar. And you get to stand aside and watch and love.
…And try to figure out where in the world you should step in and where you should back off.
Oh, parenting is tricky. But I like thinking of handing off that baby more and more often as my kids grow.