Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Responsibility and Choice

I used to have a tendency to argue and debate a true principle to the ground with my kids.  I knew it was right and if they would see the light, they would avoid all kinds of sorrow in their future.  Usually they didn’t see.  I believed it was because I still hadn’t explained it well enough or lovingly enough.  It was so clear to me and there were so many examples that validated its truth.  But many times I overdid my persuasive methods and ended up in a power struggle with my kids.  And sometimes these interactions left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

 These unpleasant feelings created an unconscious aversion to interacting with my children because it seemed like they were the cause.
Read more about Classical Conditioning
I didn’t know that the unpleasant feeling I experienced was the effect of my own boundary crossing—trying to force my will, however true it may have been and however well-intentioned, on children who have the inherent right to choose for themselves.

So after particularly difficult interactions with my kids my parenting method changed to a more permissive approach until I healed.  Then I would begin to feel a different kind of discomfort because my kids started getting out of control.  I feared I was neglecting my responsibilities.  So back to the authoritarian methods I would turn.  And the cycle repeated itself.

Last Tuesday night I attended a workshop organized by the women’s group of my church.  Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. was the visiting speaker who talked to us about how we can better raise responsible, emotionally mature children.  I loved it.  The point that stuck out to me the most (which usually means the thing I need to work on the most) was that we need to let our children make the decisions that belong to them.

“We cannot control our children and make them think, feel and do exactly as we want.  We may lecture, preach, threaten and nag our kids to do their homework, choose good friends, etc., but we cannot follow them around and ensure that they do as we wish.  They own their lives and have to learn to make their own choices” (Roger K. Allen, Ph.D.).

Every time I am reminded of this, I breathe a sigh of relief!  It is such a good feeling.  But then I go along my way letting my kids make their own choices and they start crossing each other’s boundaries and all hell breaks loose in my home.  What now?  That’s when I listen to the parenting advisers from the other side:

 “We, as parents, are the authority in our homes. ‘train up a child in the way he should go…’ (Prov.22.6).  Due to our knowledge, capability  and experience, we have a duty to preside.  We must be strong enough to establish our authority and use this authority to create a positive, nurturing environment with clear expectations, routines, traditions, and loving communication.  We are firm and fair.  We say what we mean and mean what we say (Roger K. Allen, Ph.D.).”

I like the fact that Dr. Allen addressed both parenting sides.  He didn’t advocate one or the other but a balance in between them.  This balance takes a high level of attention, effort, and diligence to acquire and maintain. 

Dr. Allen suggested that if we focus on identifying what our choices and responsibilities are and what our children’s are, we can best find this balance.  He started his discussion with the overall responsibility and desire that we as parents have:  To raise responsible, emotionally mature children.

I see my kids’ responsibility as their commitments that we go over in Kid Report everyday.  It is the degree of sacrifice they can maintain out of their own choice without feeling like they are slaves.  Because if they think they are slaves, they aren’t going to be able to grow from their commitment keeping (Moroni 7:6-8).  This is why I make sure to attach their personal desires to the other side of their commitments.  I teach the principle over and over again:  Keeping your commitments is the foundational process to obtain your desires.

I love the Responsibility Diagram Dr. Allen uses to describe the crescendo of responsibility in a child’s life.   It depicts my overall goal and commitment as a parent.  I need to train them to be able to make, keep, and report on commitments out of their own free will.  I don’t want to force them because then they will never develop the muscle.  I don’t want to get in the way of each child’s inherent desire to grow.  But I also don’t want to leave them without structure, goals, and purpose.  Leaving a child to figure it all out on her own from scratch would be like our predecessors burning their stories, historical accounts, journals, and findings before they died. 

Growth is the measuring stick that helps me know how each child is doing.  When I evaluate each child, I ask the questions, “Is her ability to sacrifice without outside compulsion increasing?  Is he progressively able to take on a greater level of commitment over time?” 

I ask these questions not only about their performance in hard skills but also their performance in soft skills.  I know that the greater level they are able to sacrifice in both of these areas consistently, the better the spouse and parent they will be when it is their turn.  Life is hard.  Work has to be done not only to physically live but also to spiritually live with each other in joy.  When a person acquires a greater ability to willingly sacrifice out of love, he or she finds greater joy in each opportunity.  And that person in and of him or herself is an absolute reward for others to be around (John 8:12).

As I’ve pondered on Dr. Allen’s words of last Tuesday night and the handout he gave us, I have come to understand much more clearly how to help rather than hinder my kids’ intrinsic motivation to grow.  Here are my commitments:

  • Consistently ask kids to identify their desires (what they generally want and how I can help them obtain that) balanced with Kid Report
  • Allow my kids to choose whether they will keep their commitments or not but track them.
  • At a separate time, teach my kids WHY it has been in my best interest to keep my commitments and HOW I have been able to  do it especially when it seemed like it would be the death of me.  Read stories of others’ experiences as well (FSS).
  • Allow consequences to follow kids’ choices and:
    • Empathize when things get harder for them or when they can’t obtain their desires
    • Positively reinforce them when they choose the pathway that leads to growth in responsibility 
I love the following quote by Dr. Allen:   
“It is easy to overstep boundaries and rob our children of their agency.  We set expectations, teach, and then support our children in their challenges by allowing them to carry out their own responsibilities, solve their own problems, and make their own decisions.  By trying to do this for them, we steal from them growth opportunities of great value.” 
Dr. Allen focused on empathy during the workshop.  He believes that children are like flowers.  Each one is different so a one-size-fits-all plan is not going to be enough.  There are rules and they are set as a standard for everyone.  But then we need to empathize with each child when it comes to the specifics. 

I understand the need to be flexible.  I tell my kids my stories and the stories of others but then let them apply these to their own story on their own.  Each of my children have learned somewhat differently than the others.  Each one has had their own unique fears to overcome.  Sometimes a child has needed a higher degree of structure and other times I’ve had to let go.  Seeing Dr. Allen’s Responsibility Diagram helped me better visualize the underlying correlations between age and responsibility. 

His handout states that part of our responsibility is to respect our children—see the goodness and uniqueness in each one of them.  This means we allow them to be who they are, join them in their world, take time for them, and honor their boundaries.  We affirm them, listen to them, and support them.  Instead of solving their specific problems for them, we ask them what they need and how we can help them.

Solving a child’s problem for him is like sitting around playing Trivial Pursuit and when it’s our child’s turn, we quickly give him the answer.  I’m kind of guilty of this.  Just kind of.  It’s not that I’m trying to be a ball hog.  It’s that I’m so excited about the ability that I have found to answer questions.  For so long I didn’t have it and experienced so much sorrow as a result.  I just figured everyone would be as excited as I was to hear the answers.  But I’m learning another very strange truth.  While we want the state of happiness, we don’t want the secrets to obtain it just handed to us.  We want to figure it out on on own.  I think we're okay with clues but we are intelligent beings that love solving a good mystery.  We love progressing through a story.  We don’t want to hear the ending until the end.  And we can’t really feel the joy of the solution unless we’ve had to wait for it, solve it, sacrifice for it. 

I have found that my present ability to experience joy is as intense as the level of sacrifice that has been required of me (Moses 5:10-11).

Because I am also still on my growth journey, I am able to find a more effective balance for each child when I rely on my New Parent.  He seems to understand each of my children better than I do.  He is the founder of the goal of raising responsible, emotionally mature children and I am one of his servants helping out with that goal.

Thus this is not the first time I’ve heard the general concept behind what Dr. Allen taught but hearing his fresh perspective was motivating.  Because of my continued tendency to deviate to one side of my desired balance and then the other, I need reminders.  Each unique perspective either teaches me more specifically about the process to obtain my goals or strengthens what I already knew.  Both are an integral part of my training.