I once had a fish I won at a carnival. It was taken home in a small bowl. My father came home from work one day with a bigger bowl and told me to watch what would happen. The fish grew! My father then put the fish in a tank and it grew even more. He said, “Many things are like that. They grow according to the space they are in.” My mother did the same with plants, I noticed. When she replanted in a larger pot, the plant grew. Having spent nearly 20 years in the field of education and having raised 2 children to adulthood, I can tell you that the same is true for human beings. Given the space and healthy environment, they do grow.
As parents and teachers, it is our job to encourage children to the next level. That next level is a new understanding of the world. They may stumble on their way. They may fall back and have to climb again but, if the walls are too tight around them, there is nowhere to go. They cannot move. They do not grow. They have no chance to rise to the occasion.
It is through our trials, our tough days that we learn courage. It is from the freedom of making choices that we learn how to do so in a way that is beneficial to us. It is from knowing that we can try again without great scorn that we learn resilience.
Children need the space to grow. Slowly, over the 18-21 years during which they are our dependents, we need to move the walls around them. We do move the walls about some things easily. We don’t expect typically developing 15-year-olds to hold our hand while crossing the street anymore. Teens in safe enough neighborhoods can go to the school bus stop themselves and no longer require an adult. Little by little we let go of some things and move some walls but too often, our fears keep us from realizing that we can offer the chance to learn and survive peril.
When I do parenting presentations for those with elementary school age children, I tell them to let their complaining children take a zero on the homework. It’s the way children learn that their actions have impact on their own lives. Don’t want to do it? Well, there’s a price for that. When older children don’t study enough, stop trying to get the school to change the exam grade. If the child earned that grade, then the child has earned the consequences. As my husband would tell my sons, “It builds character.” If your children are unimpressed by the consequences, then you have another problem entirely, maybe a few issues are at play, and you should seek guidance for the negative behaviors. For most children, knowing that you will not fight the consequences for them is enough to teach some personal responsibility.
Trust your children a little bit until you cannot. Let them be innocent until proven guilty. Then trust becomes valuable and something to take care of but let them see it is fragile. Trust them to go to safe places but have consistent consequences when they do things that break trust – like when they don’t text you to say they have arrived or they return after your curfew. Most children who have a little bit of freedom don’t want to lose it by losing your trust. In my experience, the teens who say, “My parents never trust me to go anywhere or do anything” are the ones who sneak and lie to find their space.
Let children choose when you can – both good choices and those that seem illogical. When a child wants to go to the playground but tantrums about putting on her coat, let her choose. Put on the coat and we go. Don’t put on the coat and we do not go to the playground. Let her figure it out. Good choices feel better. When that child gets older and wants to go hang out with friends but is wearing a skimpy, inappropriate outfit, there is a choice – put on something more appropriate and safer and you can go. Stay in that outfit that can encourage danger and stay home. Even when there has to be walls and boundaries for health and safety, you can teach them to make a good choice and rise to the occasion.
I once knew a girl whose parents made every choice for her and had very strict boundaries. She didn’t get a chance to make her own decisions. She didn’t have ever expanding experiences when she sometimes succeeded, sometimes failed but had room to grow and learn. I heard years later from a mutual acquaintance that she moved away from home but quickly went back. I understand that when her parents died she didn’t know what to do because they had continued to tell her how to live even as an adult. That is not the goal. The goal is to help our children to be like that fish in the bigger bowl or the plant in the bigger pot. We want them to slowly grow into the larger space so they make their mark in the world.
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