03 January 2008

The Parenting Conundrum--CC's Perspective

So, the two questions I've laid out that we're continually confronting:

1. Is our role as parents to protect or equip our boys? What is the relationship between these two choices?
2. Should we micro-manage social interactions of our boys, particularly who they spend time with? This includes how to schedule free time as well as how to increase the social skills and choices of the less socially-adept son and create more responsible choices for the more adept son.

These questions are as old as time and recently have spawned new parental initiatives. Let's look at Question #1 first.

Home schooling, religious schools, private schools, school district selection (through home ownership or renting) are all ways of influencing the individuals that children interact with. None of us should feel that we are somehow immune to this; on the contrary, each of us have made big decisions like where we will live that have a direct impact on the education and direction of our children.

My wife and I have both been fervent believers that our primary job is to equip our children rather than protect them. We don't do that recklessly, but we have made many decisions that focus more on instilling values and building skills and less on protection.

You don't need me to state what surely is the obvious now, that our generation as parents overindulge their children. Every child has every toy imaginable, 1st graders have cell phones, every participant gets a trophy, on and on it goes.

The additional factor that makes this even more dangerous or at least more concerning to all parents imo is that no generation of children have the variety of choices that this generation will have. Children 5-15 years of age have literally unlimited choices in almost every aspect of life in the United States including: religion, education, residence, sexuality, ethnicity of partner, career, hobbies, network of others. Could I have pursued Buddhism as a teenager or young adult? Sure, but I had little exposure, no support, and possible persecution growing up in a small town in the South. Fast-forward to my eldest, and there is really no barrier for him to investigate his faith, determine Buddhism is the best path for him, and pursue it.

Does this means that our abilities to micro-manage our children is diminished? I think so. The reason you manage anything is to control the variable to get a more predictable result. With the number of variables as well as the options within each variable increasing for our children, it becomes more and more difficult to manage these variables.

I'm finding that our role has shifted to specific values-based teaching with specific scenarios and context vs generic, ambiguous parenting. It isn't enough to teach our boys good vs bad, right vs wrong. We now need to get into the nitty gritty of what that means in their daily life, how they become faced with decisions, how they make choices, the results of those choices, and how they would change their process. And we have to do this in a way that is simple enough for them to get it.

It isn't easy, and it takes fostering a continued level of trust and candor that may escape us either occasionally or regularly. I don't think our objective should be to create good boys necessarily or even boys who do good. Our objective should be to create capable boys with our shared values understood and instilled in them.

Therein lies the quandary. Too much protection can lead to lack of practical experience in equipping. What good is it to teach a skill if it is never used? Not much. Yet what good is it to put our boys in situations that are more likely to lead to negative results? Again, not much good. Parenting is as much about risk assessment as anything. And we can't grapple with risk assessment unless we have an intimacy with the situation and the facts involved.

Which leads to Question #2 (or not, but I need to get on to it regardless!). As a child, I was always involved in sports, was seemingly liked but not necessarily the most popular in school, spent little time with specific friends (more time in sports, church, and other extracurricular activities), related more with kids older than me, and tended to have the confidence to set my own path. Our school was 50% African-American, 50% Caucasian, and I reached across the divide to spend time with most groups and cliques in our school (maybe excluding Band people). I had more friendships with girls than boys, I think, and I also always had a girlfriend.

Our boys are different from me but similar in some ways. We now are more frequently confronted with the social network that our boys are building, the risks involved, and the paths they are on. Some of our fellow parents have been very actively involved in managing this process. One couple has gone as far as forcing classroom changes when their child isn't in a class with their best buddies.

Question 2 is an aggregate of three separate questions, so let me get into each of them.

Social interactions that put our child at risk These should be managed by parents, but how we do manage this is a delicate process. I think most of us remember this from our own childhood, that we couldn't play with or date someone because they were bad. Most of the time, it simply draws us closer to those baddies. Yet as parents, we really need to draw boundaries. And sometimes the solution isn't a simple one. The risks become greater and have more significant impact on their lives as they grow older. We're finding that when we start drawing lines around these relationships, we suddenly are left staring at are perfect boys sitting alone in our living room. We need to be close enough to these relationships to truly know when the risk is great as the path will be a difficult one.

Social interactions that alter our child's values This confronts more of us more regularly than the first situation. For my wife and I, this probably is regularly seen in two broad areas: our faith and materialism. Our boys are with others who run the gamut of homes of faith, including agnostics, atheists, Hindus, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and indifferents. We definitely are confronted with others who have decided to place their children with a higher concentration of children and teachers of the same faith and belief system. This may be in the form of Christian schools for us, but it also is in extracurricular activities. Having the boys involved in activities with other kids whose families seem to be like-minded reduces some of the variables, although not necessarily eliminating them. The more difficult decisions are materialism for us. We're surrounded by playas in a playground of playthings, and it is something we continually fight. I'm sure I'm pretty hypocritical in this area, as materialism is relative. We combat this by discussing it candidly with the boys. I don't focus on individual friends or individual toys but more about why there are differences in what we have vs others, whether things define us, and what it means. We're also moving into discussions about what to do with our resources. That includes stewardship (giving to others, charity, and faith-based organizations), saving, investing, and spending.

Social interactions that manipulate the cool factor This is the area I've spent the least time on and don't know if I feel very comfortable with it. We've always taken a fairly hands-off approach to this, from letting the boys dress themselves at a very early age to the friends they spend time with. Should we help along a child who isn't in the in crowd? I just don't know. Look, I'm not exactly the poster child for hip to say the least. We're taking a hands-off approach toward this, for better or worse.

I don't know how much wisdom is there, more questions than answers as always here. But I would be very interested in everyone's thoughts on all this.



Blogger Falstaff said...

With Suzy's 13-year-old sister staying with us for a couple of days, I find myself constantly amazed at how different kids today are from when I grew up (I should put that phrase in quotes).

I think it speaks well for the chances of your offspring that you ask the questions at all. I don't have any kids myself, but I'm constantly fascinated by your explorations of parenting issues. Thanks for sharing.

2:43 PM  
Blogger 23skidoo said...

Indeed, this is a good post and very good questions and commentary.

I'll echo falstaff in pointing out that recognizing and classifying these issues are key.
You do a good job of understanding the complexity of the social and environmental influences on parenting.
Having more than one kid helps, having both genders (in my case) helps understand the mentality even further. (i think).

Here are my opinions.
First of all, I don't think you can be TOO involved with your children's lives. There are going to be things that they naturally shield you from anyway. If you instill in them from an early age that you expect participation in conversation and are interested in their day to day lives in an non-judgmental way they will be more inclined to share their experiences.

I encourage my kids to tell stories, to engage their imagination. Both of my girls love to draw and make up songs. My son tells outrageous stories. All these conscious and sub-conscious choices tells me whats going on in their head.

This participation is a foundation of trust (i hope) to the time when they are confronted with the things they aren't so comfortable talking about.

As far as social interaction with peers, we have also tried to be active in their choices. We know (on some level) each of the parents of the children our kids play with. Both my wife and I have encouraged activity with the families who we relate to and discourage relationships with the few 'bad' kids we have encountered.
It is a stewardship, because I honestly believe that children DO need help in understanding the difference. It is the parents who give little to no direction who wind up with problems in the future.

Anyway I went off on a tangent. Sorry to clog your comments, but thanks for the post. I'm looking forward to more.

4:02 PM  
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