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

We talked about this on the “In the Arena” podcast that aired this week. It’s called Are You a Sculptor, Gardner or Shepherd? I love this quote my sister brought up from Dr. Russell Barkely:

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.


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  1. Please know I say this with respect- perhaps your friend’s thick skin is a little too thick, to the point that she can’t take in where she may be in the wrong. If Lucy has clearly and repeatedly expressed that she doesn’t like being treated a certain way, why would your friend continue to do that rather than brainstorming other options, either on her own or with Lucy? I would be quite frustrated if I already knew I had differences from the rest of my peers and the adults in charge of ensuring our safety could not find a way to be both respectful and helpful. It would be easy to write it off by saying that she doesn’t have experience with kids with special needs or accommodations, but really, learning how to treat others based on how they ask to be treated, especially when it comes to differences, is universal. I sincerely hope that she can open her mind going forward so that she can have a positive impact on any future young women she is in charge of guiding. And I hope she can be more open and respectful towards your daughter, rather than just writing it off as “Lucy being Lucy.”
    I don’t mean for this to be harsh, I just feel strongly that part of trusting our kids is respecting them as seedlings not lumps of clay and admitting when we as adults are in the wrong and/or could do better.

    1. Oh thank you so much for your thoughts, Sam, and also for your protection of Lucy. Please know this friend has the best of intentions that are based on past experiences. Lucy has physically been hurt before because she is so feisty about not wanting help, and when you are in a situation with hundreds of girls who need to be kept safe there are certain parameters that you just worry about. I am so very grateful for this friend who has just been trying to learn the most non-invasive way to protect Lucy who she cares so much about.

      1. Shawni,

        Thank you for your response! I appreciate your follow up comment and the additional context. I hold a lot of respect for you and your blog and how we can foster open dialogues here, including when it comes to your blog readers such as myself gaining a better understanding of your posts. Of course your childrens’ safety is paramount! I do still hold firm in my belief That as adults we can do a lot more reflecting, learning, and growing than the societal norm many of us grew up with, which was that the adults are always right. I appreciate getting to be a part of your journey and that you exhibit great humility as you yourself can learn and grow as a person and a parent.
        I’m glad Lucy was able to find a solution that worked! Such a great experience that shows that a little brainstorming can yield great results.

  2. I love this! I’m navigating a new season as both my kids have flown from the nest. I am so incredibly proud of them – both are amazing young adults and ‘adulting’ and thriving. But it’s a strange season when there is no more active mothering to be done. Oh, they still need me, but like you said, they don’t need me to be the engineer, they need to know that I’m always available, always praying for them, and always available to listen and provide insight, if they ask for it. I had THE epiphany about my new role when I was watching my son (23 years old) play in a softball game. He loves sports and takes it quite seriously – even a Friday night rec league! He got into a heated argument with an umpire over a missed call and I was ready to jump out of my seat and tell him to knock it off, when it suddenly hit me that that isn’t my role now, he’s an adult – not a 6-year-old throwing a tantrum during a game. If he gets thrown out of the game, well, that’s on him and his teammates can let him have it. Afterwards, he asked his dad and I what we thought about the missed call, and we had a wonderful and calm discussion about it. If I had jumped out of my seat to admonish him in front of his friends, well …there might not have been such a calm discussion after the game!

    1. Oh I love this so much, thank you for sharing that story about your son. I love that you were able to take a back seat and let him figure it out. And to experience the good results because of it. XOXO

  3. “They don’t automatically know there are so many colleges to chose from. So many jobs they could pursue. The places they could live.”

    And so many different religious beliefs they could have…. you forgot that one.

    1. Oh yes, so much good in other religions as well as our own! I’m thankful we’ve had many avenues to talk about this through the years.

  4. Thank you for this post! We have teenagers and newly launched kids and are learning the lessons and epiphanies that you so clearly shared. I feel like this blog has been its own type of shepherd for me in giving an example how to raise a family in love…and reality too! Thank you!

    1. Oh thank you so much for sharing that kind thought, Laura. I am so glad if the blog has helped in any way. Sending love back to you and your family.

  5. Great post but have you had to let them lead their own path in things that are hard as in religion, especially choosing a different path? I’d really love to hear the hard stuff from you. And your adult Children thoughts on this. They are wonderful.

    1. As parents we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to teach our kids what we think will make them happy and help them grow and become the best they can be. So we expose them to all of the good we can. For me that definitely includes faith and God and goodness and justice and mercy and trying to understand where others are coming from. This is part of the “leading them to good pastures” in the shepherd analogy and “helping to create good soil” in the plant analogy. As they grow and shift their locus of control, we need to love them through whatever they ultimately chose they want in life. Yes, this includes religion as well. I love the talk someone shared below if you want to delve into more of what I think on the religion topic.

  6. Older teen/young adult children are no joke! Man, it’s hard to back off sometimes and let them soar (and sometime stumble). Thanks for this post.

  7. Have you ever read or listened to Kim John Payne? It’s something on my to do list that I never quite get around to, so I’m not super familiar with his work – but your post reminded me of the phases of parenting he describes as Governor, Gardener, and Guide.

    1. I haven’t heard of that, but I did a quick search and his books look really, really good. Thank you for the recommendation!

  8. You are such a talented writer! You really are! I appreciate your posts & your thoughts & ideas.💛 So much to think about! Especially since my husband & I will soon be empty nesters.
    Even though I do not care for the snarky blog comments; I appreciate that you do not give snarky replies. I am thankful to belong to a religion that teaches me to be respectful-even if my opinions differ with others. Thank you for your example!
    One article that I really love is called: “You love. He saves.” It has helped me understand that I cannot change my children…(or anyone) I can love & encourage them to live happy & meaningful lives but my role is to love my adult children & others—despite their choices. Thank you again for being a bright light in a dark world!💛

  9. I really appreciate this post! All we can do is try our best and it always seems like you are doing that with your kids. I like thinking of people as seedlings instead of lumps of clay, I think it is hard to remember and even hard to put into practice. I can be an impatient person and this is a good reminder for me.

    Also I see a lot of snarky comments on this post and I’m sorry people do that. I have loved your blog for years and still love it even after leaving religion. I enjoy your perspective on things and love keeping up on your family’s life! Thank you for sharing, even when some people are not kind about it.

    1. Oh thank you so much for this, Kailee. Your kind words mean a lot. One of my favorite thoughts from conference was from Tamara W. Runia who gave the most beautiful talk about families and love. And raising our children. One of the things she encouraged is to ask ourselves “How would I have to feel to say what they just said?” I think it’s so interesting to try to think about where those snarky comments are coming from. It has taught me so much through the years.

      Sending love right back to you!

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