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Parents: Be not anxious

Generations disagree about almost everything — from music to hair to food to the ideal places to live.

I wonder if any disagreement can match the perplexity, disdain and harsh words erupting over how to parent.

Each generation looks at other generations and at their neighbors and marvels at the wrongheaded ways parents raise children. Parents are either too permissive or too controlling, too lax in table manners or too persnickety, too casual about sex or too puritanical, too uninterested in their kids’ school performance or too obsessed with it, too hands-off in religion or too compelling.

I remember encountering the phenomenon called “helicopter parenting” where parents are over-involved in their children’s lives — to the point of suing teachers to get better grades for their children and sitting in on college admissions interviews. One high school teacher says the hardest job he faces is dealing with parents.

I saw the outcome: entitled children with minimal self-confidence, weak children incapable of making their own ways in the world and the institutions educating them being turned upside down.

I get that parents are afraid. They fear for their children’s safety, and they fear for their own performance as parents and how they will be judged if their child doesn’t learn an instrument, gets a bruise, doesn’t get into an elite college or takes a lesser job. Parents fear being rejected by their own children. They negotiate too much and expect too little.

Such fears aren’t new, but the epidemic of fearfulness does seem to have risen to panic pitch. Parenting has turned into one long setup for failure. Parents will fail if they try to engineer their children’s lives, and they will hurt their children, thus compounding the failure.

Jesus promised to be “with” his disciples, but not in the sense of hovering. He had taught them what they needed to know. He gave them a Spirit of wisdom and truth and he taught them how to seek God.

I am reminded of a parenting expert who said this during a lecture at a church filled with anxious parents (myself included): Relax. By age 12 you have given them what you can give them. Their “toolbox” is ready. Support them from afar, but let them live their own lives. Don’t take away their freedom or path to self-sufficiency just to ease your fears. Yes, they will make mistakes, they will fail and they will screw up. They can learn from those difficulties, but only if you let them experience the consequences. The truly sad sight isn’t the child who never learned the violin, but the child who never learned that actions have consequences.

I think the other sad sight is the child whose parents are too dysfunctional to provide mature parenting. In some cases, relatives can step in. If the classroom teacher isn’t overwhelmed by class size and bureaucratic nonsense, the teacher can help. Churches seem to have little consistent access to children, but an observant pastor can intervene. So can a youth leader or Scout leader. A caring person probably matters more than a smooth, well-designed program.

TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.