“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his classic piece on education and the journey we all undertake to become who we are. And yet, as parents we seem more intent on not only building these bridges for our children, but specifying every design detail as well.
My son started kindergarten today. As he walked up the steps onto the school bus – too excited to look back and give me another wave good bye – he officially began what I hope will be a long journey through learning and self-discovery. One that will take him further away from me and expose him to a completely new world of influences and opportunities.
And it’s a good thing. I know that. Even if a part of me still wants to help guide him through his day, helping him with each decision, being there if he needs me.
Yet the truth is that he needs this freedom. Whether he’ll ever be fully ready for it is immaterial. Risks and mistakes are part of growing up. They’re necessary steps towards encouraging our kids to build their own bridges. As parents, we inherently know this, even if we find it difficult to implement on a daily basis.
In a recent Mission Daily podcast, Chad Grills and Stephanie Postles discussed the impact that our collective helicopter parenting has on our kids. With parental oversight and management at an all-time high, it shouldn’t be a surprise that childhood anxiety has climbed with it – getting to the point that 1 in 3 kids meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder.
I don’t want this for my kids. I mean, who would? Yet I know it will be a struggle. I want to be involved and helpful yet not overbearing. And I’m sure this line will continue to blur and I’ll occasionally find myself on the wrong side.
So I’m writing out these reminders. A couple of thoughts to help the future versions of myself stay grounded with what’s important. To be read every time I find myself worrying about a spelling grade instead of areas that are much more important.
1. Help Him Follow His Passions. Not Yours.
When Albert Einstein was 5, his mother enrolled him in piano lessons. Yet he didn’t start loving music until he was a teenager, after he stopped taking lessons and found Mozart’s sonatas. Many years later, he wrote a letter of advice to his son, saying that “you learn the most from things that you enjoy doing so much that you don’t even notice the time is passing.”
Trying to sculpt your kids into your vision of success won’t bring them a fulfilling life. Just as you shudder at the thought of your own parents defining your success, your kids need to have their own first-hand experiences. They need to have their own adventures.
Constant involvement and daily management will only teach him that he can’t do it without you. It robs him of having agency in his own life. Are you raising someone who has the courage to pursue his own path? A rebel or a conformist?
By all means share your obsessions. Lead with enthusiasm. And show him the wonder of pursuing things that you find truly meaningful. But recognize that you can’t mandate excitement. And if you want him to make his own mark on the world, let him pursue his passions, not yours.
2. Help Him Develop a Love of Learning
If he gains one thing in this entire year, let it be a love of learning. He has it now. He’s full of questions. He loves understanding how things work, building new contraptions, and doing any puzzles he can get his hands on.
Maybe it’s less about gaining this love than preserving it in the face of everything else. Don’t worry so much about the vocabulary tests and whether he colors in the lines. Is he taking on new challenges and interested in trying new things? This curiosity will matter far more in life than how many sight words he can master before his sixth birthday.
Encourage continuous discovery. In the words of the great Bruce Lee, “Learning is definitely not mere imitation or the ability to accumulate and conform to fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery and never a concluding one.”
3. Recognize His Efforts. Not His Struggles.
Just as it’s important to encourage that he try new things, it’s equally important not to be critical of his failures. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when he reverts back to the easy successes that earn him praise.
Lead with your own imperfections. Demonstrate that spirit of experimentation. Then acknowledge your own mistakes without regret.
Remember the lessons we learn best are the ones that we learn the hard way. Encourage him to see experimentation as a means of exploration and not as a race to the finish line. This perseverance and resiliency is the cost of admission in a world that will be defined by those who can solve interesting problems.
4. Treasure Your Time Together. Be Present.
I won’t tell you that time is precious. You know this. But as commitments grow and time refuses to expand with them, recognize the importance of making the most of the time you do have together. Would you rather be reading with your son or reading on your phone? Would you rather be catching up on emails or teaching him to play catch in the backyard?
When you look back on these decisions, which ones are you going to be happy with? To quote Seth Godin, “What could possibly be more important than your kid? Please don’t play the busy card. If you spend 2 hours a day without an electronic device, looking your kid in the eye, talking to them and solving interesting problems, you will raise a different kid than someone who doesn’t do that.”
5. Be the Hero He Thinks You Are.
Remember that right now, you’re his hero. When you’re there, he’s safe. In his eyes, you can take care of anything he needs.
This won’t last forever. As him and his sister continue growing up, they’ll eventually see that their dad can’t change the world for them. A hug won’t always make everything better. Their perspectives will grow and their eyes will open more and your faults will be more visible. Your limitations more defined.
But those limitations don’t need to define you. Remember that they’re watching you. Every minute that you spend together they learn something. Every interaction helps form the basis for their behavior in the future.
Recognize the rare privilege that this is. Be that hero. Give them lessons and memories they’ll carry forward with pride. And show them that the cape they put on your shoulders really belongs there.
Create the Environment. And Let Them Grow.
For anyone that claims to be a parenting expert, I don’t think this role actually exists. We’re all strictly amateurs.
So while there’s an often-overwhelming pressure to help our kids reach that success finish line, I can’t imagine they want us to sculpt them into our vision of success. Just as we would likely cringe at the idea of our own parents choosing our futures.
Instead, we can provide a positive, supportive environment. One that encourages them to realize their own paths and grow within them. Because in Goethe’s timeless words, “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”