Postures in Parenting Part III: Too Close and Too Far
- Sharon Hersh, M.A.
- 2004 15 Mar
This article is part of a continuing series on parenting styles. In the first part of this series we underscored the importance of forming a hand-in-hand alliance with your teenager and offered a quiz for you to identify your primary parenting style. In the second part we examined Parenting From Above and Parenting From Beneath. In this article we will look at the final two styles of parenting, looking at strengths and weaknesses with suggestions for ways that you might use your parenting style to form a stronger alliance with your teenager.
Parenting from a Distance
Goal: Make child take responsibility for their life.
Fear: "If I get too close, I'll make things worse or get sucked into the chaos."
Response to Parenting Challenges: "This is your problem."
Teenager's Response: "My failures result in loss of love. I am on my own."
FATHER: I don't' know what you're thinking staying out past your curfew! You had better get your act together now or you are going to live with your mother.
DAUGHTER: Fine. I'll pack my bags and leave right now.
FATHER: You do whatever you want. You always do anyway.
DAUGHTER: Maybe that's because you don't really care what I do, as long as I don't inconvenience you. You're ready to ship me away whenever there's trouble. You make such a big deal out of everything. Everyone comes home late sometimes.
FATHER: You are old enough to take responsibility for your own choices. And the truth is, if you continue to make bad choices, I'm not going to enable you. You'll have to move in with your mom.
This father is right. He recognizes that his daughter needs to take responsibility for her own choices. However, when our teenagers are in trouble, even though it may be uncomfortable for both of us, what they need most is our presence. The parent who tends to parent from a distance risks losing their children completely when they disconnect in times of trouble.
Parents who share custody arrangements, like the father in this scenario, know how easy it is to threaten shipping our children off to the other parent when times get tough. This is part of the tragedy of divorce. We send a destructive message to our children when we suggest that we will be with them when they are good, happy, and respectable.
We can remain present to our children in the midst of their most terrible mistakes by expressing our unconditional commitment to them and by asking how we can help. They may need to experience the consequences of their choices. They may need to get outside help and counsel. But they still need us.
The hand-in-hand parent knows that no matter how scary or overwhelming it might get, they need to be with their teenager, not in the distance.
Parenting from too Close
Goal: To make children's lives easier.
Fear: "If I don't take care of this, my child will fail and I will be a bad parent.
Response to Parenting Challenges: "This is my problem."
Teenager's Response: "I am helpless." "My life is not my own."
MOTHER: Honey, you can't keep making these bad decisions. We have got to figure out what we are going to do.
SON: Mom, this is not your problem.
MOTHER: Oh yes it is. I am responsible for you and what you do is a reflection of me.
SON: Mom, don't worry. I won't do it again.
MOTHER: I know you won't, because I'm going to help you. I'm going to start picking you up from school every day during lunch. We'll go out to lunch together. I want us to start having Bible studies together. You have to get close to God again.
SON: Mom, I can't do that. Please. Don't embarrass me.
MOTHER: Honey, I don't want to embarrass you. I just want to be with you and keep you from getting into trouble. I'll do anything.
This mother is right also. She knows that her son needs her. Her instinct to be with her son is wonderful, but her motivation is flawed. The mother in this scenario is hovering not necessarily for her son's sake, but for her own. She wants to be with her son to ease her own anxiety, to live her son's life for him, and to keep her son from being a bad reflection on her.
The hover mother can look good. She is involved, informed, and interested in her child's life. The strength of our connection with our teenagers is weakened when we perceive our child's failures and struggles as our failures and struggles. When I take over my child's life, I lose the capacity to mother from a wise and centered reality and I send the message to my teenagers that they are not capable of living their own lives.
The mother in this scenario might say, "We need to talk about the consequences of your actions and how you want to handle them. I am there for you if you need me and will help with whatever I can, but I am confident that you can handle this."
Even if our children have not shown the best judgment in the past, it is our responsibility to help them create a context where they can succeed and give them a chance to try again. This is the parent-child bond at its best. The parent who stays too close is vulnerable to turning this bond into a yoke that can keep both parent and child from separating and growing into their individual bests.
The hover parent not only confuses their responsibility with their teenager's, but he/she confuses their responsibility with God's. We hover parents tend to be better to our children than God is. We want to wipe away their consequences, do their work, and make it all better. We teach our children to rely on us - not themselves or God. We can't superimpose a spiritual life on a teenager. We can only model a relationship with God built on trust. The hover mother needs to stay close to God, trusting in His care for her and her child.
The parent who is committed to becoming a hand-in-hand ally with their children prayerfully distinguishes between their responsibility, their teenager's responsibility, and God's responsibility.
The hand-in-hand parent uses knowledge for the purpose of understanding their teenagers. He/she creates natural consequences that give their children hope that they can survive their present troubles and have a chance to begin again in the future. This parent helps their teenager find the right help and is involved in the process. He/she uses their past mistakes and growth to help their children feel less alone and have a model for learning from their own mistakes. The hand-in-hand parent perpetually offers their unconditional presence to their teenagers while allowing them to take responsibility for their own actions.
Don't forget the final resting-place for the hand-in-hand parent. We can only forge a strong alliance with our children to the degree that we have an alliance that is stronger still with God. He promises to be "a very present help" in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1).
The word "help" in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament means, "to come along side." God reveals His posture. He doesn't stand above us -- judging or condemning us for not doing it right. He is not beneath us - surprised or overwhelmed by the troubles in our lives. He is not at a distance - unmoved or untouched by our problems. And He is not hovering to immediately undo our misdeeds or take over. He is with us, committed to our growth and good, in the midst of the most unthinkable problems or overwhelming circumstances.
You can read more about hand-in-hand mothering in Sharon's new book: Mom, I hate my life! published by Shaw Books.
Sharon A. Hersh is a licensed professional counselor, author, and speaker. She is the author of 3 parenting books: Mom, I hate my life!; Mom, I feel fat! and Mothering Without Guilt (a Mom's Ordinary Day Bible Study by Zondervan). She is also the author of Bravehearts: Unlocking the Courage to Love With Abandon. Sharon is a frequent speaker for retreats and conferences. She lives with her two teenagers in Lone Tree, Colorado.
Read Part I of this series: You are the Ally Your Child Needs.
Read Part II of this series: Parenting from Above and Beneath.