With emergent teenagers, one of my always-biggest questions was how to trust kids to figure out their own paths.
Just like my fellow mothers, I wanted the very best for my kids. And from my vantage point, sometimes it felt like I had the answers for them. I mean, as mothers, can’t we often see the mountains and pitfalls before our kids reach them? And we have a parental responsibility to guide, after all. I mean, that’s kind of the job of a mother, am I right?
But the longer I am a mother, and the more I step back, the more I realize that kids are pretty dang wise after all. And they’re the ones who eventually need to figure out their own paths.
An epiphany at girls’ camp
I have a friend who learned an important epiphany from Lucy last summer at camp. She is one of the youth leaders, but has also known Lucy for years.
They have had a rocky relationship.
Oh, this friend is as good as gold adores Lucy. She has also taught her daughter so much kindness that she is one of Lucy’s biggest blessings in life. But Lucy sometimes doesn’t share the love with my friend. I’m so thankful my friends have thick skin sometimes, because Lu wears her feelings right up-front on her sleeve. You know right where you stand with that girl. This friend of mine is sometimes too much of a nurturer for Lucy. She is always wanting to protect her with so much love. She wants to be sure Lucy is ok.
And Lucy? Well, Lucy is not a big fan of the nurturing. At least not when she can tell it’s nurturing. She does not want any special treatment. She wants to be just like all the other kids.
Which is a small problem for her leaders sometimes. Because as much as this girl of mine wants to blend in, she just doesn’t. And at camp, especially, having low vision can be dangerous.
So I loved that my friend shared her new epiphany she had after they got home from camp.
She said she noticed that the times when Lucy got frustrated were the times when she was trying to help guide her from behind. Guiding her elbow or explaining the path where she was supposed to be walking.
It was during the hike that the epiphany came. The one I talked about where Lucy would not give up and insisted on doing that whole blasted thing even when the majority of the girls turned back.
After some initial frustration from Lucy who claimed she did NOT need help, this friend decided to try walking in front. She realized Lucy could still see her form when she was in front of her and could have the space to follow with her cane at her own will and pace. She didn’t need pushing. This just felt so exhilarating for them both. It was a slight change, but a very impactful one.
I don’t have a picture with my friend, but here’s her daughter exemplifying this leading technique:
This made all the difference. My friend just needed to lead rather than push.
Leading rather than pushing in motherhood
As I think of that story I feel like it’s such a great parallel to mothering. Of course, when kids are young we are in constant training ground. We are right at their elbows guiding them along. We teach them to say thank you. To load the dishwasher. We work on manners. We teach them how to make a bed. To be a friend. To look out for those who might need them.
We are side by side. A joined entity.
But as kids grow up, hopefully the “locus of control” shifts. Instead of us controlling internally we have to learn to give them some space like my friend did with Lucy. We need to let them have the space to become themselves. It’s always good to have a leader. Someone they can trust. But we have to let them make have space to make their own decisions…and to make their own mistakes too.
Five ways to lead without pushing
Remember we are shepherds, not engineers
You do not get to design your children…your child is born with more than 400 psychological traits that will emerge as they mature and they have nothing to do with you. So the idea that you are going to engineer personalities and IQ and academic achievement skill and all these other things just isn’t true. Your child is not a blank slate on which you get to write… The better view is that your child is a genetic mosaic of your extended family which means this is a unique combination of the traits that run in your family line…. [we need not to think] ‘I am not an engineer’, rather, ‘I am a shepherd to a unique individual.’ Shepherds are powerful people, they pick the pastures in which the sheep will graze and develop and grow, they determine whether they are appropriately nourished, they determine whether they are protected from harm. The environment is important but it doesn’t design the sheep. No shepherd is going to turn a sheep into a dog.Dr. Russell Barkely
My parents talk about something similar: children are not lumps of clay. They are seedlings we can nurture. This means, like the shepherd comparison, we can pick the pastures. We can pick and even create the soil to help them grow. But we can’t, no matter how hard we try, change them into something they’re not.
Our job is to nurture the child inside. Their job is to become who they want to be.
Communicate humbly and honestly
Sometimes our kids need to know how we feel. Give them the information. Why do you want them to do the things you’re encouraging them to do? Lessons, classes, grades, etc. Make sure they know the big picture. I love what my sister said in the podcast about her daughter not wanting to join the orchestra. Oh she wanted her to join with all her heart and her daughter was not interested.
Eventually my sister had an epiphany. Deep down it may not have been the orchestra she wanted her to join. She decided to outline for her daughter what she really was pushing for: for her to be part of something bigger than herself. To be part of a group that expected things to help her learn and grow. Together they were able to communicate concerns and expectations. This was so good for both of them.
My other sister also had a similar experience with her adult son. I learn so much from my siblings!
The point is though, we need to communicate why we want to guide our kids in the ways we do. If they don’t feel it that’s all fine and good. But at least we’re communicating. And modeling communication may be the most important!
Educate them with the possibilities
From our vantage as parents looking back, it’s easy for us to see the possibilities in life. But for budding youth they don’t know. They don’t automatically know there are so many colleges to chose from. So many jobs they could pursue. The places they could live.
I think the best way to do this, actually, is to invite others to help you. Invite different people with different job skills to dinner. Have your kids talk. to a college counselor at school about different options after high school. Have them go stay with an aunt or uncle for a week or two to get a different vantage point in life.
Show your kids you trust them
We have to learn to trust our kids. They need to gradually feel that trust. This can be really tricky sometimes.
It can start young when we give them a task and let them know we know they can do it.
And it grows as we go forward. I think this has taken me years to learn. Oh how I want my kids to have the same opportunities I did. If it worked for me, it must surely work for them!
Tamara W. Runia said in conference (one of my favorite talks, it is so good!):
While our families aren’t perfect, we can perfect our love for others until it becomes a constant, unchanging, no-matter-what kind of love — the type of love that supports change and allows for growth and return. …In earthly families, we’re simply doing what God has done with us — pointing the way and hoping our loved ones will go in that direction, knowing the path they travel is theirs to choose.”
Oh sometimes that “hoping” is the trickiest part of parenting. The part where we are walking a few steps ahead and just praying they will make choices that will make them happy. But we have to learn to let them forge their own way.
Perhaps the biggest part of showing we trust them is being ok when they make mistakes and loving them anyway. Just like we do every day, kids make mistakes. That’s all just part of life, and they need a nurturing place to land. when it happens.
I have learned that listening is the best tool we can give our kids. When we listen, without judgement or even feedback sometimes, we can so much more easily start to understand them. Which helps us trust them all the more.
I have learned this lesson over and over again, but most recently quite poignantly with Lucy on a random morning while she. was spilling out some sorrows to me. She is so good at teaching me. She let me know, as I jumped in to offer solutions, that she just wanted me to listen. And we had a pretty sweet experience because of that.
Oh I’m sure there are so many more great ways to learn to trust your kids to make their own way. To nurture the “soil” they are growing in or to “lead them to good pastures.” I’d sure love any added wisdom people would like to share in this community of fellow mothers.
This teen to adulthood and beyond is tricky business. Sending lots of love out into the universe for everyone on the journey to figure it out.