Friday, October 31, 2014

Making Space for Grace: On Our Changing Role as Parents

Google tells me there are 21,300,000 parenting websites and 230,000 parenting blogs.  That right there is a supernumerary level of advice. 

That result led me to ask how many parents there are in the world, because naturally I wondered if maybe there is perhaps an unadvertised goal of one website per X number of parents.  After that, I wondered where everyone got their advice in 1814 and 1914 before 21,300,000 options were at our fingertips.

Sadly, the world doesn't keep track of its parents, but I found this highly reliable resource...

 Statistics show that there are 82.5 million mothers and 66.3 million fathers in the United States. This brings the total number of parents in the United States to approximately 148.8 million.

Clearly, I am working with hard facts and unimpeachable statistics.

I question what happened to 16 million USA fathers, but that is a blog post for another day.

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Today there are 230,001 parenting blogs.  I figure I am a grandparent now, certainly that automatically means I have reached a level of experience in parenting that creates an obligation for me to share my vast knowledge. (Read: sarcasm)

Something about being here in the USA with my adult children and missing my five at home has me in a weird space of introspection.  It is a place of grieving what is gone while examining what I have learned and anticipating what lies ahead. It is a cacophonous space, to say the least.

Today I had lunch with a friend and we traded tales and woes of the middle place, where we both reside. I said something close to this-  'I just feel like if we learn as we go and I have learned things through my mistakes with the first few kids, certainly by the time the seventh one hits her stride we will know every mistake and pitfall and she should be raised mistake free. Yes?'  Am I right?


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When we parent our little kids along side our friends and community, we like to sit around discussing how to help them not be jack-asses. We compare stories about tantrums and pontificate about which foods seem to make monsters of them. It is pretty easy to find agreement and comaraderie when it comes to raising little kids. 

Oftentimes we will laugh together at the hilarious things 5-year-old kids say. We confess to one another when we had a bad day, those days when we just weren't patient enough with the toddlers or the hormonal pre-teens. We create safe, encouraging spaces on line and in person to share the ups and downs of parenting little people.

As our kids get older, the circle of sharing grows smaller. We talk less and less about what is hard or funny or wonderful or terrible about parenting.  For multiple reasons, it is more difficult to find parents that will discuss their pregnant teenager, or their binge drinking college kid, or their changing and sometimes strained relationships with their adult children.  There is way less encouraging one another and far less sharing.

It isn't that most people with older kids have perfect trouble-free kids. It isn't that we, as parents, don't need help. It isn't that we have lost our friends. It is that most people with older kids don't know if it is safe to be vulnerable about these more consequential years. Older kids that are struggling strike greater fear in us. Maybe it's that we are embarrassed that we don't really what we are doing. 

Raising kids is hard.

If we are managing an out of control five year old, we can talk about it because  - Well, because he is five. There is time.  It'll get easier, we think to ourselves. However, if we are managing an insolent 22 year old, it is rarely shared.

Before I go too far, please know this isn't a post about my or your troubled kids.  I don't actually think the Internet is the best place to discuss that. I do think that one of the more encouraging things is coming to realize we are not alone in our struggles.  It always helps to find out someone else struggles or feels uncertain in the same areas. Families and family relationships have been complex forever and ever. None of us are experiencing things that are unheard of or new. 

This is a post about how we parent older kids (and let go of control) and it is a post about vulnerability and finding what we all have in common.  It is about grace and do-overs.  It is about second chances and, forgiveness. It is about there always being time.

Our core group of friends our age are mainly handling grade school and younger kids, a few of them are just entering into the teen years with their oldest kids. Of course, we are there with them in that. We have early teens and our last two little primary school divas. 

The only place we find ourselves the oddballs in child rearing, is this place of having adult children with significant others  - and now even children of their own. 

Apparently if you have a child or two really young and your friends don't also start a family young, it follows that you will have kids moving out of the house and getting married when your friends don't. This was a shocking revelation for me.  

There are things about parenting older children that nobody really tells you. I am not sure why. I have a lengthy list of the things I did not know, but here are a few of the bigger ones:
  • It is scary, the mistakes feel more costly and long reaching
  • Older kids doesn't equal an easier parenting gig - the job doesn't stop feeling big or even daunting because they grown up
  • "I'm sorry" is an important two-word phrase to memorize
  • There is still time, even though it doesn't feel like it
  • We change -They change  (or at least if we do, we can hope they will)
All throughout child rearing our kids do things we have asked them not to do. I bet we can all think of examples from the last 24 hours. The difficulty comes when the kids are launching out on their own and the whole landscape changes almost overnight. 

The ways in which you handled disobedience don't so much serve as viable options any longer. I would venture to guess that for all parents, there will come a point when the adult child will do something you have asked them not to do. As a parent, you have to choose how you will respond. At five and ten and even fifteen years of age, it is a fairly straightforward how you handle being ignored. At 18 and 22, it is less so. There are no time outs for young adults. 

How are a mother or father to act/respond when they disagree with decisions their newly adult children make?

We made some pretty large mistakes six years ago when our oldest daughter announced her engagement to be married.  To us it felt very quick and we feared she was too young and things had moved too fast. I flipped out. I was afraid. Long story short, Troy and I made some fear-based decisions and because we were afraid we did not give our immediate blessing. (Although, we came around in time.) We made choices and asked things of them that caused our relationship harm. All of our reactions were still based in love and concern (with a large dollop of fear), but they did not necessarily land as love and concern. 

When our second child started going through a difficult season people were so kind to us and commented about how gracious we were acting. It made me uncomfortable because they did not see the entire picture and they did not know about our past mistakes that directly led us to be better equipped to respond more graciously to child number two.  

Like C.S. Lewis said,  "Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn."  

To our great delight, time and cautious attention to the mess-ups in our parenting careers seem to bring healing. When I wrote a letter to my grandson, I shared with him one thing I have learned; nothing is ever quite as bad as it seems right in the beginning. Time brings clarity. Time brings healing. There is still time. 

I have long since changed this misconception of mine, but I always assumed that parenting adults would be easier and that the hardest parts were over once you got through that hormonal stage of 11 to 14 years of age. I don't want to bring you all bad news, but it doesn't necessarily get easier. I am sorry, but that is truth. The good news is this: there is time.  If we, as parents, are committed to growth and change, it follows that we can be hopeful that our relationships will grow and change with our kids as they grow and change too.  "I am sorry, I was afraid, can you forgive me for responding with fear?" can and does go a long way.  

Our kids will (and should) make their own choices and sometimes choose to ignore our words of caution or wisdom. We will be forced to decide if we keep harping on things and draw hard lines, or decide that stating our hopes and desires once or twice with clarity is enough. 

Someone recently asked how I could "condone” something that my child decided to do. I said, "Well, I told her how I felt and what I thought was a wise choice and she decided not to do what I suggested. If I keep loving her and speaking to her and pursuing relationship does that equal condoning to you?"   (It did to that particular person.)

This line we try to draw troubles me. The definition of condone is, to forgive or approve (something that is considered wrong) : to allow (something that is considered wrong) to continue.  

I want to suggest that love and pursuing relationship doesn't really mean approving of everything someone chooses.  I can dislike a choice they made but still pursue them wholeheartedly. Withdrawing relationship (or love) because I don't approve is not my answer. I also want to suggest that at some point it is not up to me to allow or disallow anything anymore. 

If we are raising kids to eventually be autonomous, (that is the point, yes?) the natural progression of things will mean they start making choices that don't seek or require our approval. 

When a six year old is told "Don't eat that whole bag of candy", and they still do it (maybe many times over the course of a few months) and you keep loving them, speaking to them, spending time with them, we would never say we are "condoning eating a whole bag of candy" because we kept loving.  

I don't know if I will find agreement here, or how many of you reading have older kids, but I think the roughest part of the whole transition happens during the first year or two after the kids move out from under our roof. Literally overnight parents have to figure out how to be the right amount of involved and gauge the right amount of advice and caution to give. I have not found this to be easy. It feels like uncharted territory to me and I know I have erred on both sides, too much advice, and too little input.

As our kids all get older and start to test their own decision making power and even begin to choose differently than we want at times, there will be times we can't win an argument or will not get our kids to see it our way.  It feels strange at first. Who is this person with differing thoughts of his own?!?!??? It is odd to realize we are not the boss anymore. 

In those times I find it is important for me to remember that winning an argument should not really be my ultimate goal. When Jesus came up against difficult things, he couldn't have cared less about winning the argument. He preferred to make space for grace. When we make space for grace with our kids they will make space for grace for us too.  

I don't know much, but I know there is nothing I need more than grace. 

Thank you, Brittany, Christopher, Paige, Michael, Isaac, Hope, Noah, Phoebe, and Lydia for being my grace teachers. I sit under your tutelege with gratitude for all you continue to teach us.