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The Hardest Part of Parenting

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We’ve another new voice on board, folks! Shay Seaborne, mom of two teenage daughters,  joins us from Virginia where she has been extremely active with The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers for years. She’s also responsible for founding and leading the Family Oriented Learning Cooperative (FOLC) support group; and founding the VaEclectic Homeschool discussion list. And, as a Sea Scout Skipper, she’s right at home at Parent at the Helm!

By Shay Seaborne

Allowing my children to fall down and take responsibility to clean up the mess, I give them their best teachers—themselves.

Allowing my children to fall down and take responsibility to clean up the mess, I give them their best teachers—themselves.

As parents, we naturally want to protect our children from every sort of harm. This is normally right and good, but can become a problem if taken too far. During almost two decades of parenting and two and one-half years of “skippering” a Sea Scout unit, I have slowly discovered the importance of, as another Scout leader put it, “letting them fall on their faces.” This means allowing them to make their mistakes and experience the consequences. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had put this principle into effect much sooner, both with my two daughters, and with my scouts.

“Don’t get angry, make them responsible.”
When one of my daughters was a preschooler, she went through a period in which she was clearly making an attempt for power through regressing in potty use. Having cleaned up after her several times, I became frustrated and angry. This prompted a call to my friend Barb, mother of 4, and a wonderful parenting mentor. Barb gave this advice, to which I have often revisited when feeling frustrated by my children’s behavior: “Don’t get angry, make them responsible.”

Results have been mixed. I mean my results; I have not always paid proper heed to this brief but crucial parenting rule. It isn’t easy to stay calm when my kid repeatedly ignores or disrespects me, neglects her responsibilities, or, worst of all, doesn’t listen to my advice. (Hmmm…I wonder how she inherited that?)

For instance, my 16-year-old wants to land a job, so she can afford to buy things that are not in my budget. However, she has no work experience, and therefore, has not been hired by any of the numerous positions to which she applied. This puts her in a bad spot, despite my best parental efforts. Her older sister was hired for her initial job based on her volunteer position and participating in Sea Scouts. I have encouraged my younger girl to volunteer, and to join various groups, but she declined.

“What Are You Going to Do?”
I have had to squelch that “I told you so” voice in my head, the one that chants, “If only she had listened to me! She would be doing great!” Somehow, I have managed to calmly let her experience her own discomfort. I let her express her frustration with the situation, explained the “have to have a job to get a job” conundrum, and ask, “What are you going to do?” This classic question puts the onus back on the owner of the problem, breaks the “poor me!” mindset and starts the process of moving forward.

My daughter has to deal with the fact that she’s in an uncomfortable place, due partly to her own making—to ignoring perfectly good motherly advice for years—and she has to figure out how to move into a more comfortable place. This is tough for her! And for me. I watch her struggle, try to separate my own discomfort from hers, and silently remind myself that this is an invaluable lesson. I think about how rescuing her will only weaken her problem-solving skills, and, most likely, make her feel resentful toward me. It is better to let her own the problem, the solution and the success!

My best role is to listen, to encourage, to make an occasional suggestion, and to keep asking what she wants to do. I offered to work on her resume with her, through a shared file on Google Documents. There, we took turns fleshing out her experience with the Homeschool Theatre Troupe, and the tiny bit of volunteering under her belt. In small doses, she was able to take my advice (“don’t use ‘a little’ in a resume; never minimize yourself or your experience”) and find her own real-life education, driven by the intrinsic motivation to find a job.

Tension arises when we want our children to succeed more than they want to succeed, when we want to save them from experiencing “negative” feelings, like disappointment, regret and healthy shame. We think we are doing them a favor, making their lives better. While this may be true in the short term, in the long haul, we are robbing our children of something invaluable: the opportunity to learn their most important lessons when the consequences are small, rather than when the consequences can result in huge or even life-changing effects.

When children receive some guidance in handling them, these “bad” feelings are their best teachers. Healthy shame—the kind that is intrinsic, rather than imposed—tells them that they messed up, that they need to apologize and make amends. Regret teaches them that they did not take responsible action, and they need to pay better attention in future. Disappointment can be the springboard for action that will make up for what they missed out on.

Allowing my children to fall down and take responsibility to clean up the mess, I give them their best teachers—themselves. At the same time, they teach me how to rein in my “inner caretaker.” Results? We’re more compatible, and happier as a family, an outcome well worth going through the hardest part of parenting.

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3 Responses to “The Hardest Part of Parenting”

  1. Beverley says:

    Thanks Shay, your words are so true. As a parent of adults, I can honestly say this stepping back role is a continuous one – our 'inner caretaker' never really disappears and pops up whenever our children look like they are doing it tough. Reading your blog reminds me it is okay – better than okay – to continue to resist this urge and to nod sympathetically, but that's all. Boy, oh boy, it's hard!

  2. Laura says:

    Such vital wisdom Shay.

    I know from my efforts to let my kids experience their own consequences that I'm prone to feeling the heartbreak, shame and disappointment right along with them. That makes it ever more important for me to step back so the experience is truly their own. They know I'm in the background if they need me but they don't have to deal with my feelings on top of their own.

  3. Shay Seaborne says:

    Beverly, I'm glad you found my post a good reminder. Your response tells me that development of the ability to stand back and watch will be of continued use. I'm glad to know, since that ability so long to attain.

    Laura, I appreciate your additional words in regard to letting kids have their own experience, instead of having to deal with their parents' feelings, too. Parenting is a constant journey toward self-betterment, isn't it?

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