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Walk the Parenting Tightrope without Losing Your Balance

Walk the Parenting Tightrope without Losing Your Balance

The more parenting advice you seek, the more confused you can become when solutions that seem so simple for others don’t work in your own life. The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for successful parenting.

Instead, parenting is an art that requires the skill of a tightrope walker. Performing in the circus of everyday life, you must constantly balance challenging demands. If you stretch the rope too taut by forcing rigid principles on your family or allow the rope to become too loose by giving up, you and your kids can topple over.

Here’s how you can walk the parenting tightrope without losing your balance:

Strike a balance between limits and freedom. As you face the challenge of training, make it your goal to help your children make wise decisions (exercising increasing freedom within limits they choose for themselves). Do your best to instill wisdom and right values into them. Remember that your job isn’t to control them or to neglect them; it’s to train them and to influence their choices.

Model the behaviors you want your kids to see, imitate, and reproduce. Live out your core values with integrity in your own life. Let your actions match your words. Instruct your children on your expectations. Clearly and consistently describe what you expect, and why.

Coach your kids by getting them on track when they lose their way, improving their technique when they’re ready for progress, helping them recover from whatever wounds limit their effectiveness, and encouraging them to do their best to fulfill their greatest potential. Correct your children’s mistakes and attitudes that need tweaking. Embed your ultimate values, so your kids truly own what they have learned. Periodically adjust your training to help them more successfully absorb your values and learn to respond automatically with wise choices.

Strike a balance between punishment and nurture. As you face the challenge of discipline, make it your goal to help your kids achieve self-discipline (knowing when to feel appropriate guilt because they are safe enough to admit wrong).

Get to know each of your children’s temperament and let that knowledge influence how you discipline him or her. Discover how each of your kids learns best, and take that information into account as you decide how to discipline. Rather than just trying to change external behavior, dig deeper and focus most on shaping your children’s internal character that will guide them their whole lives long. Ask God to help you be objective and clear as you consider your kids’ choices.

Vary your disciplinary techniques. Make the punishments fit the crimes. Discipline as part of a team. Take advantage of your spouse’s strengths if you’re married. Lean on grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers, coaches, and church leaders. Be tenacious and never give up. Remember that disciplining your children is one of the greatest gifts you can give them, because it helps them grow in vitally important ways.

Strike a balance between tradition and choice. As you face the challenge of healthy spirituality, make it your goal to help your children develop personal faith (in which their spiritual path becomes their choice and they have the benefit of a the framework for your family’s faith story).

Teach your kids thoroughly about your faith and ask God to help you live it out well and consistently in front of them. But realize that they have free will, and must be given the room to choose lives of faith for themselves.

Remember that traditions offer wonderful teaching opportunities and family stability, but don’t push family traditions too hard. Instead, build authentic relationships with each of your kids that respect their need to make private decisions about faith. Discover how each of your children connects best to God, and encourage and support them as they do so – even when their spiritual style is different from yours. Partner with your spouse (if you have one), other family members, friends, children’s ministries leaders, youth group leaders, and others to pray for and mentor your kids.

Strike a balance between tender love and tough love. As you face the challenge of adolescence, make it your goal to help your kids come through with minimal wounds (stopping short of drastic choices with long-term damages to themselves and others). Be constantly on the lookout for sin, and deal with it head-on. But always keep in mind that you need to deal gently with your children and make restoration your goal whenever you intervene.

Don’t rescue your teens when they make wrong choices. Allow them to experience the natural consequences of their behavior often, remembering that those consequences will produce the pain needed to motivate them to change in all areas of life (such as dealing with schedules, jobs, household chores, grades, friends, and authority). Be explicit about what you expect, and why. In situations where there are no natural consequences for your teens’ behavior, create them, keeping in mind what your teens most value. Clearly state the expected behavior, define a warning for failure, and cite the expectations and warnings when you impose the consequences.

Be flexible, negotiating the right issues at the appropriate times. Be constructive when you punish your teens; try to use the punishment to help rehabilitate them. Collaborate with the parents of your teens’ friends to reach agreements on important parenting standards and work together to enforce them. Pray often for your teens and trust God to work powerfully in their lives over the long haul.

Strike a balance between support and self-sufficiency. As you face the challenge of wise financial management, make it your goal to help your children reach economic independence (a gradual weaning process to shift their support responsibilities so that you, as a parent, become a safety net rather than a supplier).

Start early – when your children are young – to teach them how to manage money wisely. For example, as soon as they begin to help out with some household chores, you may want to pay them for some of their help so they’ll associate work with money. Teach them to value education to help them achieve self-sufficiency. Encourage them to try a variety of jobs to gain solid work experience and learn more about themselves (who they are, and who they aren’t).

Help them manage income and outgo through budgeting. Teach them to defer gratification and be grateful for what they have rather than focusing on what they don’t have. Help them learn to give generously to others.

Support them as they figure out how their temperaments fit into different work environments. Identify their unique gifts and help them use those gifts to contribute to the world. Find out what each of your children is most passionate about, and help them identify the kinds of employment that will sustain their zeal for the long haul. Help them understand the impact their choices of education and jobs, tastes and desires, and circumstances will have on their lifestyle.

Strike a balance between attachment and autonomy. As you face the challenge of interdependence, make it your goal to help your kids develop healthy long-term relationships with you and your spouse (a lifelong friendship marked by love and respect). Help your children ponder, enjoy, and grieve over what they need to let go as they mature. Act as their mentor and guide to help them prepare for where they’re going. Create rites of passage to mark various significant points of change, and celebrate them. Allow your kids to make mistakes, remembering that those mistakes are an important part of allowing them to learn and grow.

Find creative ways to build interdependence in your relationships with them while respecting your differences. Focus your attachment only on issues that matter most – crucial decisions your son or daughter will make – and tilt toward autonomy on everything else. Figure out which family traditions are still meaningful in new seasons of life, and which ones you should let go. Strengthen your marriage to provide a secure foundation of love for when your kids feel insecure. Plan for what you’ll do with the extra time you’ll have once your kids leave home.

Deal with tensions head-on rather than letting them fester. Refuse to be a victim when one of your children wounds you; talk about the issue openly and honestly to work it out. Admit the mistakes you’ve made as a parent and seek your kids’ forgiveness. If your relationship with one or more children is significantly strained, enlist help from a pastor, friend, family member, or counselor to pursue healing.

As your kids mature, gradually move from correcting to counseling and from curing to consulting. Create appropriate boundaries. Continue to enjoy pursuing common interests together. Learn to share your kids graciously with in-laws after they marry. Once your kids become parents themselves, don’t try to control their parenting, but cheer them on as they make their own decisions. Be a supporter rather than a savior if your adult children get into financial trouble; don’t bail them out, but help them learn to take responsibility for their own problems. Prepare your will and other important documents such as durable power of attorneys for health care and property, a living will, and a revocable living trust.

Adapted from Walking the Parenting Tightrope: Raising Kids without Losing Your Balance, copyright 2005 by Russ Robinson. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Mich.,   

Russ Robinson is coauthor of three books, including Walking the Small Group Tightrope. He is now an attorney in Chicago – the “day job” that permits his frequent speaking and consulting for churches and other organizations. Russ has been both an elder and the Director of Ministries and Small Groups at Willow Creek Community Church, where he continues to attend. He also served as senior pastor of Meadowbrook Church in North Haledon, New Jersey. Married to Lynn since 1977, they are the parents of three children.