Why we should raise our kids to choose good for themselves


May 14, 2020

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I’m standing at the front of the classroom leading a discussion on Fahrenheit 451 when there came a quiet knock on the door. “Just a moment,” I said to my students, and as I walked over to see who was disrupting 5th period, the visitor opened the door herself. 

It was a delivery from the mother of one of my students: his copy of the novel that he apparently had forgotten at home. The room hushed, because I had already checked that everyone had their books with the previous night’s assigned annotations in the margins. 

I turned to the red-faced student, as it became apparent for all to see that he had “borrowed” someone else’s copy and passed it off as his own. I quietly handed him his actual copy of the text, and continued the lesson until the bell rang. His public embarrassment and zero for the homework was punishment enough. 

I often think back on that time I spent teaching high school freshmen, since it provided the most fascinating firsthand experience with the effects of different parenting types and personalities. 

The parents who weren’t dropping off their son’s forgotten books or accessorizing their daughter’s uniform every morning were, more or less, MIA. Students of these parents would talk casually about 4am curfews, their parents’ indifference to failing grades, and an excess of other nefarious ramifications that naturally befall 15 year olds with too much latitude. 

I found a majority of my students’ parents fell somewhere within these two camps: either the absence of direct parental involvement left these children to bear a crippling amount of autonomy and license, or the parents were so incredibly overinvolved that the term “helicopter parent” was hardly appropriate; they functioned more like “lawnmowers” in that they actively cleared any and all potential obstacles from their children’s paths. 

Our culture tends to oscillate between these two extremes in terms of what we collectively believe parenting should look like. Either you should be very hands-off in your child’s life, and let them make their own decisions in every regard, or you should make the majority of their choices for them, and shelter them from any realities that could potentially make them unhappy. 

Although it might seem that kids parented in such extremely different ways would behave quite differently, this was not actually the case in my experience. I found the students who had under-involved parents and and the students who had over-involved parents were incredibly similar: neither were able to successfully choose the good on their own. 

In both cases, the child becomes either crippled by ineptitude or burdened by rebelliousness, and so struggles to successfully choose good on their own.

This reality extends far beyond the confines of my ninth grade classroom. It is a trope presented through many beloved stories, even some of my kids’ favorite Disney ones! Think how the excessiveness of Sleeping Beauty’s parents left her unequipped to face adversity because she was so sheltered, and how the overprotectiveness of Nemo’s father made the little clownfish swim out to the boat in heated rebellion.

On the other hand, disengaged cartoon parents, like Bob Parr at the beginning of The Incredibles for example, produce the same types of kids: his daughter Violet is painfully timorous and totally unable to face the world, and his son Dash is rebellious and filled with contempt. 

It’s clear that too much license leaves kids unequipped to make good choices, while too much control strips the child of choices altogether. In both cases, the child becomes either crippled by ineptitude or burdened by rebelliousness, and so struggles to successfully choose good on their own.

As a mom with little kids to raise I think about the right way to parent a lot. What effect will my parenting have on who my children turn out to be? After years of loving and educating and disciplining, what kind of persons will emerge on the other end? How do I walk this line between too much control and too much license? Essentially, am I doing any of this right?

It makes sense to me that the “right way” to parent, if there is one, lies somewhere between these extremes of passivity and control (and has a wide enough breadth to accommodate different circumstances and personalities). Just as virtue is the mean between deficiency and excess, so the ethic of parenting is found somewhere in the middle. We are parenting the “right way” when we teach our children how to know, love, and then choose what is truly good themselves. 

We are parenting the “right way” when we teach our children how to know, love, and then choose what is truly good themselves. 

The particulars of how we teach our children will look different for each mother and each child, but the effort involved in teaching them is universal, and it is work we cannot afford to shy away from.

If we’re looking for less work, we’re either going to be like the under-involved parents who push their kids out of the nest too soon, or be like the overprotective parents who keep them tethered inside it for far too long. 

It was less work for my student’s mother to drop off his book than to teach him truthfulness and responsibility for one’s actions. Likewise, it was less work for my students’ detached parents to let their children stay out all night than teach them the importance and goodness of a reasonable curfew.

Both options are easier than taking the time day in and day out to equip kids’ bodies, minds, and souls with the tools they will need to face the world confidently and successfully on their own. 

Underlying the work of teaching our children must be an awareness of our own personalities and tendencies. Temperamentally we are all different, and when we let go of the wheel we’ll each veer toward either apathy or control. That’s natural. The work involved in knowing and monitoring our own tendencies is just as important as the work of teaching our kids what is good.

Underlying the work of teaching our children must be an awareness of our own personalities and tendencies.

Personally, I struggle to curb my tendency toward impatience. It’s hard for me to spend the time giving my kids the tools and autonomy to know, love, and choose what is good instead of just choosing it for them. I find this difficult, mostly because it’s unpleasant and frustrating to watch kids struggle. I mean, have you ever taught a kid how to put on and tie their own shoes, and then watched them attempt to do it??

It’s much easier to totally step away and just hope they figure it out eventually or to just tie the laces in a bow for them.

But the fact of the matter is that kids hone their ability to choose what’s good when parents are engaged enough to patiently teach them how, and then detached enough to allow them to grapple with mastery themselves. When they’re little, we initially work at imparting baser goods like physical lifeskills, such as potty training or tying one’s own shoes. And as our children grow, we work at teaching the more intangible goods of sharing and resolving conflict, of telling the truth and acting honorably. 

We can’t step away from our kids and hope they figure these things out eventually, and we can’t step in and do everything for them.

What we can do is show our children how choosing what is good is not only beneficial for them, but is beneficial for their siblings, their families, their schools and their friends. Personal and communal advantage is the first step toward loving what is good. Eventually, that self-interest can be built upon, and we can teach them through loving and knowing He who is the Ultimate Good that Goodness is worth loving and choosing for its own sake. This is deeply meaningful and will help our kids choose good even when it’s temporal consequences might not be ideal.

All of this requires a balance of distance and involvement. It requires us to stay on the line between the deficiency and excess of control to raise kids who are morally, physically, and mentally strong enough to take on the world. 

It’s strange to face the reality that our kids will eventually grow up. And though we’ll never stop being our childrens’ mothers, we will stop “parenting” them in the strictest sense of the term. We have the awesome and crazy responsibility to teach them what is good, to help them desire that good, and to give them the tools to venture through life toward the Ultimate Good, obstacles and all. And although doing this job well is no guarantee of perfection in our children, it is the only way to rest assured that our children grow up knowing the potency of their own existence.

But if I’m doing my job right, hopefully they’ll become men and women who know what goodness is.

Constantly choosing what’s good for them, and sheltering them from any and all bumps in the road only works for so long. On the other hand, if we step back too fast and too soon, we’re sending kids who don’t know any better (because we haven’t taught them any better) out into a world filled with contradictions and mixed messages without the ability to decode them. It’s like dropping them into a jungle without a map or a compass and hoping they’ll be able to find their way through it. 

So when I stumble over the details and particulars of potty-training, managing sibling conflict, and teaching my kids to tie their own shoes, I find solace in broadening my frame of reference in this way. Then, I can see how the sum total of these daily adversities, lessons, successes and failures fit into the scope of my job as their mom. 

I don’t know who my kids will become. But if I’m doing my job right, hopefully they’ll become men and women who know what goodness is. They’ll have learned choosing goodness is in the best interest of both their souls and their communities. And with the help of grace, they’ll understand the most important thing of all: that all good originates in God, and He is the Ultimate Goodness which is lovely and desirable for its own sake.

Comments +

  1. Pilgrim says:

    This piece is excellent food for thought. One criticism – though this post is obviously by a mama written for mamas, I don’t think the matter can be discussed well without mention of the husband/father’s role, even though it’s often left to the mother to carry out in day-to-day life.


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