Do grownups really know best?

by Kristin on May 17, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Richard Rutter

I haven’t exactly polled any parents, but I’m pretty sure one of the most common parenting struggles is this: When do we try to “make” our kids do something, and when do we let them make their own choices, even if we’re pretty sure they’re bad ones?

That question stems directly from these: How much of our wisdom, input and advice are kids willing to trust and embrace? Do we really know what’s best for them? And even if we do, does it matter if they don’t willingly accept our plans for them?

Different personalities, different approaches

I have always been a very logic-driven person, which I suspect made parenting me easier in some respects and more frustrating in others. Here is the easy part of the equation: If my parents could explain to me (ie: build a solid case) for why I should do something, why I should do it a certain way, etc., I was more than happy to buy into it. I wasn’t interested in being rebellious or contrary just for contrary’s sake.

But the other side of that attitude meant I was never up for a “just trust us” approach to parenting, and I certainly was going to rebel wholeheartedly against a “because we said so” power play.

My 12-year-old, Q, is a lot like me in that respect (oh, the joys of getting to parent a mini-you!). My 10-year-old, S, is more eager to please and to do the right thing, but she also has lots of feelings and emotions that tend to muck up the works, getting in the way of logic and other practicalities. It takes more time—more storytelling, more nurturing and more love—to get her on board. We try to approach each of our kids according to their needs, but we hope the end result looks consistent, no matter how we got there. It’s an art form I’m sure I’ll never perfect.

What do entire groups of kids need?

Things get really complicated when you’re looking at the needs of a whole group of kids. I’m sure there are a few teachers and school board members out there who can attest to that. Maybe some conscientious politicians, too? Who should be making larger scale decisions for our kids, and how should those decisions be reached?

I’m mulling all of this over right now because we’re in the process of rethinking our youth program at church (I posted a bit about it last week). At a youth advisory meeting yesterday, some parents asked that classic question: Do I make my kid go to youth group if he doesn’t want to? And as we discussed what we think our kids need most from their church experience, and what kind of program will provide that, this question also came up: How much should we, as adults in the church, prescribe, and how much should we let the kids dictate?

While the answer might seem simple—if it’s a program for them, they should get to design it—I’m realizing it’s not that easy. First of all, there are so many different kids with different interests and needs. Can a bunch of kids really understand and take all of those needs into consideration? Secondly, I think kids tend to draw many of their ideas from their limited experience with reality. If you ask them what youth group should be like, they’ll think of that one meeting that was fun, or that one time they visited their cousin’s church, and the youth group there seemed to embody some ideal. Kids need to be pushed—we all do—if we’re going to think more openly and broadly about new approaches and possibilities.

In the end, I think the right way to go about involving kids in youth group planning pretty much models the parenting approach Jason and I try to take at home. It falls somewhere in the middle of a “we know what’s best for you” and “you know what’s best for you” spectrum. We need to sit down and talk to kids, sharing the different sides of the issue and our range of concerns. We need to ask them lots of questions—not open-ended questions like “What do you think youth group should look like?” or “What do you want to do with yourself all summer?” but more specific questions: “What frustrates you most about youth group?” and “What kind of balance do you think need between focused time and free time, thinking time and fun time?”

After the kids have been truly heard and their thoughts have been considered, I think the adults should be the ones to make the decisions—and I think the kids will be more likely to embrace the plans that are put in place.

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  • Kristen Sloan

    As a current youth director, I agree completely with your approach on involving the students in the process. They need to be heard and asked for input as the adults make important decisions. I have interviewed with several churches who do not involve any students in the process and it upsets me. I am always surprised at how students will step up when needed, especially when it involves their future.

    But outside of this specific situation, I think students, kids, young adults need to make their own decisions. When they are able to make choices on their own, they are more likely to learn and seek advice in the future.

    Thanks for sharing and writing! Kristen

  • ejly

    One parenting technique I stumbled into was getting my sons to understand the Art of Now. So, for things that are hard to get motivated to get to (like the youth group in your example), I ask them to go *this time* and then make the decision right afterward as to whether they want to attend next time. Often my kids found that when they benefited from an activity, they could easily commit to going next time (and that was an easy thing to remind them of if they were tempted to just sleep late instead). And for other activities, if they decided it wasn’t worth going next time, I respected that. We could find other things to do.

    The other side of that is that if Now isn’t a good time to discuss reasons and motives, we can’t. If I ask a kid to get out of the street, I don’t have time to explain that a car is coming. I can and do make time to talk about it later. This approach works well with both my kids, even though their philosophies differ quite a bit.

    Here’s the other thing to consider: what’s best for the parent? Do you want to be making decisions for someone else and if so for how long?

  • Tamaryn

    This may end up being slightly off topic, but sometimes, especially on major decisions, parents do not always know best. It is in these circumstances that it’s vital parents listen to their children and take into account their children’s thoughts, feelings and desires.

    I’m not a parent. I’m specifically thinking back to my own childhood. And one key decision my parents made about my development. Private school.

    My parents had chose to send me to a private, catholic elementary school. By the end of first grade I hated it. I was constantly picked on. (I had too much of an imagination for the other kids and even some of the teachers.) I was miserable. Second grade. Same group of classmates–same results. Third grade…fourth… fifth. I begged all year, every year to send me to public school so I could go to class with friends I had in our neighbourhood. So that I could have a new crop of people and have a fresh start.

    My parents did the best they could and as an adult I know that. I think they felt the catholic education that I was getting was a better foundation (I don’t believe it was) and I think they felt, regarding being teased, that it would probably happen at any school they sent me.

    But for me, I look back at those years as being miserable and in some ways tortured. (My brother had similar experiences also). It took me a long time to grow past those experiences. To learn how to make solid and good friendships… and to build up self esteem. (Which some could argue, I’ve built up too of much as a result.)

    So. When it comes to the simple stuff, bed times, which movies you let your kids watch etc. parents probably do know best. But when it comes to the tough life choices that parents make for their kids, I think your last two paragraphs are the most helpful.

    It’s really critical that parents ask probing questions beyond just “why don’t you like it.” Sometimes it’s hard for a kid to answer that concretely. And sometimes, parents need to be willing to say, “maybe my child knows what’s best.”

  • Gen

    Agree that parents don’t always know best. Of course, we always know they MEAN the best…they intend the best. And it’s another story completely if we all went into this, had our opinions and feelings heard, and decided something that ended up being a real mistake. But I hear what Tamaryn’s saying–I had some extremely painful personal experiences that could have been avoided had I been approached as someone with at least a little self-awareness and self-knowledge. Every child is different–every child has a different threshold for these things. But parents have to ask themselves: do I trust my child? Is my child aware, even on a basic level, of his/her major strengths and weaknesses? If so, he or she is probably more capable of making the right decisions than I think he/she is.

    And what makes so many parents think there’s a magical line that kids cross at a certain age (18? 21?) that turns them into rational adults? I know a number of rational, sensible, introspective children who blow me away with how well-suited they already are to adult life, and how ill-suited their parents are by comparison! Even adults make mistakes, stumble into errors, head down the wrong paths. Bottom line: controlling a child’s decisions will not prevent them from exploring the dark places they need to explore in life.

    That’s not to say that parents shouldn’t exercise some control over their children’s decisions. I just think that there’s a massive social disrespect for children and teens in our culture, and that we don’t give them all the credit that’s due, so I’m playing devil’s advocate here.

  • Roxanne

    Feedback from our kids certainly makes sense. However, in the end the parents are the parents, and their kids look to them for guidance. These days some parents seem to think that parenting is a democratic process, that their children need them to be good friends. In the end, it all depends what side of the fence you are in all this. I do believe that “because I said so” is a lame cop-out. Anyone is more likely to comply if they understand why … don’t you think? That said, parenting means listening to what our kids think ~ hearing them out, letting them be themselves, and no satellite versions of us.

  • Kristin T.

    Kristen, it’s so true—no one likes to be told what’s best for them, unless they’re asking for guidance and advice. When youth feel respected, they seem to have more respect for others in return (including for their wise, old parents!). When it comes to making their own decisions, I think it depends how many other people are affected by their decisions (ie: we wouldn’t let our kids make decisions for themselves that would negatively impact the rest of our family). There’s a cost-benefit analysis that needs to be considered.

    ejly, I know I already mentioned this on Twitter, but I really love this “Art of Now” parenting approach you describe. Many kids (heck—adults, too) have a tough time transitioning from one environment activity to another. It’s easy to think “I don’t want to go to soccer practice” or “I don’t want to try that art workshop” when it means you have to put away the Legos or the book, change your clothes, go out into the heat or cold, etc. But how many times do we, as adults, drag ourselves off to something and later feel so thankful that we did? This is a great way to start teaching kids about the power of anticipation—the negative and positive sides.

    Tamaryn, your story makes my heart hurt! It’s good for me to hear, though, because I can’t really relate in a personal way. All parents need to know these harmful scenarios are possible. It’s too easy to just say “Oh, they’ll be fine! They’re so strong and resilient. Some adversity will build character!” etc. etc. On the other hand, it does seem like you’ve turned out great, :) but I don’t accept the premise that you needed to go through so much hurt and frustration to achieve your great character.

    Gen, great points, especially when it comes to the fact that our kids won’t cross a magical barrier at 18 or 21 into adulthood. We have to give them the tools and the freedom to ease toward independence. Also, you articulated this really well: “I had some extremely painful personal experiences that could have been avoided had I been approached as someone with at least a little self-awareness and self-knowledge.” As a parent, I think part of recognizing and honoring that self-awareness is listening to our kids describe how they feel and then respecting those feelings. That doesn’t mean we can always fix the situation or change the feelings, but we shouldn’t try to talk kids out of their feelings, or tell them why their feelings don’t “make sense.”

    Roxanne, you’re right—we shouldn’t expect or hope that our kids will be satellite versions of us, and I’m not a fan of the “I want to be my kids’ best friend” approach, either (maybe in 10 or 20 years that would be nice, but not now!). I also agree that *most* people respond to logical explanations, but I do know some who tend to react against logic. Either they are intent on being in control so they fight being swayed, or they tend to follow intuition more than logic (and logic, in many ways, doesn’t show respect for intuition).

  • Susan

    This is interesting, I wish there had been more of this when I was growing up. I think keeping them involved is wise. When I was in hs, I learned the most from my government class where we had teams design our own laws. We discussed, didn’t always agree, and had to take votes. It was invaluable to have consensus building.

    At the same time, kids need structure and boundaries and a certain level of respect for their parents. I remember once my older brother (by 4 years) ‘grounded me’ to an earlier bedtime, b/c he felt I was staying up too late. So he came in my room every night I was ‘grounded’ to talk. And I loved it. And continued ‘misbehaving’ for his attention.

    It’s difficult to determine a kids’ motivation and needs sometimes.

  • Kirstin

    For what it’s worth, there are fundamental asymmetries in play here, but here’s *a* case for heavy-handed parental intervention in religious matters:

    Our fifth grader gets frog-marched to Hebrew School twice a week, very much against her wishes. In a couple of years when her younger sister hits third grade, they’ll both be going. This is instruction in reading Hebrew prayers, on top of 2.5 hours of religious education every Sunday at the synagogue. Not going isn’t an option (though we have let her skip the occasional day when her opposition rises to a counterproductive fever pitch). In this case, we absolutely know better than she does (though not having been raised Jewish myself, I have difficulty making that argument).

    The way I see it, if it’s a religious/ethnic identification for which she can be persecuted, it ought to be one that she can also embrace as a source of strength and belonging. I also see it as a way of giving her choices in future: as an adult, she may choose to reject or not practice her Judaism (as I have largely turned away from the Protestantism I was raised with), but she will also have ways of acting on it and letting it matter to her that she wouldn’t have without this education.

    Were I raising her Christian, I would probably be much more flexible (I would also have more scope for intervening directly to try to make her religious instruction a more positive experience…), but, like I said, there are fundamental asymmetries in play here that make it harder for non-Christians to inculcate a religious sensibility and identification without these kinds of formal structures..

  • Kristin T.

    Susan, it’s so great that you still remember, to this day, something valuable and useful you learned in high school! Maybe, when it comes to getting youth involved in what’s best for them, it’s less about the end result and more about the process—working through a problem together, from many different angles, until you have the best possible solution for all involved. (Love the story about you and your brother, too.)

    Kirstin, that’s a really good example—in order for me to think through the complexities of this problem, I need to try out several different scenarios. This point, in particular, gives me a lot to think about: “I also see it as a way of giving her choices in future: as an adult, she may choose to reject or not practice her Judaism…but she will also have ways of acting on it and letting it matter to her that she wouldn’t have without this education.” I guess much of what we’re doing, as parents, is preparing our kids for a variety of *possible* life scenarios. For instance, if I “make” my kids take Spanish all the way through school, that doesn’t guarantee they will someday live in Mexico or have a career that requires them to speak Spanish. It does mean, however, that they will have more opportunities and success, if that’s something they wish to do.

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