How do you encourage your kids to take risks and explore their boundaries and yet keep them safe at the same time? It’s a parental challenge that has implications for a lot of other areas of our lives.
I’ve shared before that I have a daughter who races cars with me. And, for some people, that seems like an inordinate level of ‘risk’ to be taking as a parent. I’ve never seen it that way. Not because I don’t recognise the risks involved in motorsport, but because I ‘do’ recognise the risks and put things in place to manage them as best can be done.
Things like building a car that has ‘inherent safety’ as part of its basic design, including technology built into the chassis such as impact-absorbing panels and structures, correct driving seat placement and collapsible steering columns. But there is then the added safety we build in that is not in your road car. Extensive roll caging, full head-protection seats, HANS devices (Head and Neck Safety restraints that lock your helmet in place), fire extinguishing systems and electrical isolation switching that can be activated from inside and outside of the car in the event of an accident.
A lot of the safety considerations are managed before we get into the car. But some have to be accounted for after we are in the seat. Most of these involve our attitude and decision making. Most of these decisions are made under pressure. In racing, we call it ‘The Red Mist’. It’s when a driver gets a so-called rush of blood and makes decisions they normally wouldn’t. It’s when their competitive spirit overrides their better judgement. I refer to it as that moment when their driving skill is overtaken by their ambition!
As parents, I think we often focus on the wrong elements of ‘risk management’ with our kids. I know of parents who will spend six months picking out the right ‘first car’ for their teenagers, but only ten minutes sitting them down and teaching them about making good decisions when they get behind the wheel. It is great that our kids drive cars with in-built ‘crumple zones’, airbags and other so-called ‘active safety systems’. The reality is, however, that never having to use any of the survival systems built into their car is a far better result. And a lot of that has nothing to do with the inherent safety systems in their car, but on their attitudes and decision-making skills as a driver. As a friend often says, “Most problems are caused by the nut behind the steering wheel, not the ones holding the doors on”.
So the big question for a parent is, How do we teach our kids to manage the biggest risk to their safety – themselves?
One solution often applied is to micro-manage our kids. Never let them out of your sight when they are growing up. Rescue them from every consequence of their choices so they don’t get hurt. Never let anything ‘bad’ happen to them. The problem with this type of parenting is that inevitably, something ‘bad’ will happen in our kids’ world, and they will have no other strategy for dealing with it other than relying on you to rescue them. One day you won’t be there. Or the ‘bad’ thing that happens will be beyond your control or reach to fix. Kids brought up this way lack confidence, have little or no resilience, and live with the constant weight of vulnerability. They live inside the lines you as a parent drew for them. In a sense, you are the airbags and crumple zone they are relying on. They never actually get to ‘drive’ their own car…
Another way of parenting is to turn your kids loose and let them ‘learn by experience’. “I lived through my mistakes, they will too”. Maybe. The world we grew up in is not the world they are growing up in. The mistakes we made as kids were things like nicking off from school for a day and going surfing, or ‘borrowing’ mum’s Austin Healey Sprite to go to the beach and taking a minor detour via Amaroo Park Raceway and racing it instead (I was brave enough to confess it only after she passed away…!). These days, the ‘mistakes’ kids can make include sexting, social media melt-downs and giving drugs a fling. Learning how to avoid making mistakes is a much better thing than learning how to live your life dictated by the life-long consequences of the avoidable. Sure, you can tick the “I’m not a helicopter parent” box, but at what cost! In the end, who actually has to pay the price for the mistakes? Not the parent in most cases.
Parenting or at least good parenting involves a little bit of these two strategies and a whole lot of a third one. Yes, we need to protect our kids from making mistakes that cause serious harm. But making mistakes leads to some of the most valuable learning and growth. It helps us learn where the boundaries are, and that our choices have consequences not only for us but for the people around us. Selfish people are the ones who never learnt that what they do has an impact on the people around them. And yes, we need to let our kids explore boundaries, make mistakes and suffer their consequences, but in the end, we are supposed to be the adults. Kids make mistakes, it’s a fact of life. But when adults make the mistake of treating a child like they are adults, kids just don’t make mistakes, they make ‘big mistakes’.
So what’s the answer. Well, hard work! As The Gambler famously said, the trick is to “Know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em”!
The first piece of advice I would offer is this: ‘Trust your kids to make mistakes’. Our kids will make mistakes, and some of those mistakes may take living with. But in the end, how you respond to their mistakes will have far more impact on them than anything else. Our kids need to know that mistakes are just a part of life, and the trick is to pay the price and then get on with it. If every mistake leads to World War III, then they learn to never admit their mistakes. As a parent, you’ll get ‘locked out’ of your kids’ lives. Oh, they’ll live in the same house as you, but one day something will happen, and you’ll go “Who is this child? I had no idea this was what they were up to”!
Secondly: As a parent, admit your own mistakes. Kids need to see the adults in their lives take responsibility for their own mistakes. Why should a child admit they made a mistake if they have never seen anyone else do it?
Thirdly: Teach your kids that every day is a new day. Kids need to know that we are not storing up their mistakes to use against them later. If your child makes a mistake, apply the Rule of Three: Acknowledge it; Deal with it; move on from it. The worst thing you can do to a child is to lock them into their last mistake. In other words, don’t make them feel that in your eyes they are only as good as their last mistake. For a child, that is crushing!
If I had to sum up those three things I’d say: Be honest. Be humble. Be gracious.
When we remove grace from our relationships, we are left only with rules. As a parent, you may be ‘big’ enough now to both write and enforce the rules and so feel like you are in control but that is only a season (If not a dangerous illusion). The trick as a parent is not to ‘be in control’ but to teach your children how to be ‘self-controlled’.
Do I hold my breath when Louise straps herself into a race car? Absolutely! Do I trust her to make good judgements and think through the decisions she is making? Absolutely. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have the confidence to do what she does. I think that’s a little bit how God feels. Does He know we’ll make mistakes? Well, yes. But He applies the Rule of Three. That’s what the Cross was about. It was where God confronted and acknowledged our sin, dealt with it and opened the door for us to move on from it. The Gospel is not a crutch weak people lean on, it’s good ‘parenting’ on God’s part…
Have a great week. Remember the Rule of Three… it applies to you as much as it is to be applied by you!