You love your children. That means you provide for them, nurture them, and care for them. And you shelter them. You literally shelter your children by providing a home for them to live in. But you also shelter them from hardship and privation. Sometimes, though, “sheltering your children” is brought up as a criticism for parents who place their children in a private school or don’t allow their children to go to certain places or join in certain activities. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I shelter my children. I also feed and clothe them: why don’t you criticize me for doing that, too?
On the other hand, the same impulse that prompts us to shelter our children from the beating that the world is always threatening to give them can have the opposite effect of actually exposing them to more of the world’s onslaught. When we attempt to shield our children from pain, failure, or frustration, we are, ironically, (and, no doubt, unintentionally) preparing them for pain, failure, and frustration in their future because they missed the opportunity to gain the independence and toughness they need to succeed as adults. Parents who attempt to patch up their children’s friendships that get off track, do their children’s homework, pay their children’s debts, or any number of other over-involved, misguided efforts can be denying their children much-needed character traits and skills that are absolutely essential for adult life.
God has called parents to love their children, but our love is to imitate God’s Fatherly love and care for us. Our Heavenly Father allows us to experience pain, futility, confusion, and adversity because He knows it is good for us. He cares much more for our holiness – an eternally valuable likeness to Christ – than He does for our happiness – a passing emotional experience. Likewise, it’s our job to lift our children up, paradoxically, by letting them fail or struggle or hurt. It’s that pain and struggle, when mixed with trust in God, that will develop into fortitude, purpose, wisdom, and “grit,” traits essential for navigating the world as adults. It hurts us when our children hurt, but when we try at all costs to minimize the pain they experience, we should ask, whose pain is this really about – theirs or mine?
With these thoughts in mind, allow me to suggest a few things parents can do to help their children, even if sometimes it feels like the opposite of sheltering them.
Let your children do their homework. I read about a recent survey in the UK that found one in four parents admitting to completing at least some of their children’s homework for them. I have a hunch this goes on far more than we imagine. If our children’s homework is stressing them out, taking some of it off their plate may seem at the time like a good solution. We should help our children when they have questions or need a study partner, but parents should resist the urge to do the work for them. It’s their struggle to learn from. Since when was learning supposed to be easy?
Let your children fail a test. Should we remind them about the test the next day? Should we prompt them to study? Should we mention that they need to practice their instrument for the upcoming recital? Of course. However, there comes a point when our children need to learn the consequences of their own choices, especially as they enter the teenage years. We are not actually raising children; we are raising adults. We are not doing them any favors when we closely manage our children’s studying for them, cutting the root of their training in independence. There’s no one looking over my shoulder reminding me to pay bills, mow the lawn, or speak kind words to my wife. Our children need to gain the maturity they need for mature independence now, not later.
Let your children clean up their own messes. Children make mistakes and messes. They need to learn to take responsibility for what they do, and our role as parents is to hold them accountable, not to clean the mess up for them. So imagine that you have told your child to clean up his room (probably not that hard to imagine), and he doesn’t do so. The clothes are on the floor, the bed is unmade, the trash is overflowing. What does it teach your son if you pick up the clothes, make the bed, and empty the trash – after you’ve asked him to do it himself? The message is clear: irresponsibility and disobedience don’t lead to bad consequences; there will always be someone there to wrap my bad decisions in bubble wrap. That’s a set-up for a hard lesson later in life. Instead, we should hold our children accountable now so that they become men and women who understand accountability and responsibility.
Let your children wrestle with their own relationship struggles. It’s not our job as parents to make all hurt feelings go away. Hurt feelings that result from getting crossways with friends or being mistreated by peers really do hurt. Parents who intervene again and again to try to make it go away can actually be doing more harm than good, though. Instead, parents can help their children walk through the hurt feelings, seek resolutions for themselves, and learn to ask forgiveness of those they’ve hurt. We can give them tools to communicate and resolve conflicts, and support them with comfort and wisdom. But that’s something far different from doing it for them.
Let your children be pressure-free in their activities. Take the pressure off their extracurriculars. Face it, your child will most likely not be a concert violinist or a major league baseball player or a major recording star. These activities are places for your child to develop their interests, learn new skills, have fun, and make friends. Their character is honed as they commit themselves to these activities and follow through, working through challenges and hardships, and learning discipline. But parents who hover and criticize and constantly problem-solve can unknowingly undermine the benefit of these activities.
There’s more that we can do. We can give our children the chance to earn money so that they learn to manage it. We can encourage our children to take risks (the right kind of risks) and then live with the consequences. We can be honest with our children about their strengths and weaknesses. And the list goes on.
Behind all these things is really a mindset: it’s my job as a parent to support and love my children by letting them fail and struggle and hurt so that they develop the kind of character that will serve them well in adulthood. We feed, clothe, and shelter our children. And we can – and should – nurture our children toward independence and perseverance, with God’s help.