The Big Picture of Parenting

Original Cartoon published in Wall Street Journal (July 2008)

Thinking about this– I know I have two huge handicaps.

  1. I didn’t grow up under “ideal circumstances” but I still turned out just fine.
  2. My own kids are only ten, almost eight, and five months.

I’m not a parenting expert by any means. In fact, because I didn’t grow up with a strong relationship with my own dad (or any male whom I’d label a role model) I’m still learning how to dad.

While I might not be there yet as a parent, and while I might not have the best native skills as a dad, I still have the power of observation.

Here’s what I know from doing youth ministry and ministering to adolescents and their parents for my entire adult life: Parents who focus on the Big Picture have a higher success rate than parents who get lost in the daily battles.

They win the battle but lose the war.

What do I mean?

Parents who are highly controlling, who don’t let their adolescent children experiment and find themselves in middle and high school, tend to see their children go wild in their 20s. The mistake seems to be that they focused on managing behaviors instead of trying to parent a teenager trying to figure out who they are. (The primary task of adolescent development.)

So they freak when their 14 year old makes out with a girl at a dance. Or put them on lockdown when they try alcohol at a party at 12. Or force them to attend a church camp when they are 15 “to fix that nasty attitude.As if Repunzel-ing them were going to work.

Sidenote: Isn’t the plot of every Disney movie a struggle to find ones self against the wishes of controlling parents? Ever wondered why those stories connect so strongly with adolescents? It’s powerful to them because it’s their life! 

What’s the Big Picture?

I like to look at my children with a long lens. What are the types of things I’d like them to be as adults? And then I work backwards.

  • I want them to be strong, independent thinkers. Not yes men. –> Arguing about things will be normal. Questions like “Why?”, my authority, and fairness are annoying, but fostering that.
  • I want them to enjoy simplicity. Reject the desire of plenty for the joys of saying no. –> While we live a pretty simple life, we allow them to experience luxuries. They want things, earn them, get them. In order to reject that stuff they’ll need to discover for themselves that there is no happiness in things.
  • I want them to have happy, healthy, and simple adult relationships. –> That means I can’t freak out about everything. They are going to like who they want to like. And they may make some mistakes along the way. But I don’t want them carrying around a daddy-phobia when they think about a partner. Is dad going to approve of this person? I want them to be happy. To have a healthy marriage. And to have simple adult relationships.
  • I want them to find pleasure in what they do. –> That means we want our kids to pursue their dreams for them, not ours. Not surprisingly, my kids are into nerdy things. (I mean, I’m kind of a nerd, right?) We’ve been open to letting the kids explore what they’re into. We exposed them to soccer early, I loved soccer growing up. But they hated it. So we didn’t force them to love it for us. Well beyond childhood we want to rally behind what they want to do vocationally. Sure, I have dreams for them. But their dreams for themselves are so much cooler than my dreams for them.
What’s the Big Picture for Your Kids? Can you articulate it? And do you allow your Big Picture to overrule your cultural desires to over-parent?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

10 comments

  1. Hey thanks for this. I just wrote a post for parent of teens that runs tomorrow, so it was helpful to read.

  2. This is so good dude. My wife is due Friday. I’m holding on to this post as a great reminder.

  3. “Sure, I have dreams for them. But their dreams for themselves are so much cooler than my dreams for them. ”

    Oh, man, Adam, thanks. We have been fighting against some family members whose approach is “you need to make your son join basketball, and football, and…” and we absolutely REFUSE. Our kids, with our guidance, need to find their OWN passion, their OWN path, to live their OWN life. Some of these family members have kids that never amounted to much of anything after High School because the parents forced them into sports, and…though they were good (state playoffs and champions)…they never did much more afterwards…they’ve pretty much gone adrift in the world…their identity was so rooted in High School, the “real world” afterwards was never really thought of.
    We’ve exposed our kids to all kinds of sports/arts, and they’ve chosen a unique mixture of both, and, even if not “successful” – they have enjoyed and learned, not endured…

    1. There’s nothing more sad than peaking in high school.

      I was fortunate enough to have a family in our last church whose son had a great 10+ year in the NFL, was an all-american in college, even was the captain of a National Championship team. And they would be the first to tell you that his career had almost nothing to do with camps or a crazy schedule or them driving him. He loved football… but not as much as being with his family or even hunting. His going to a D1 school and the NFL had everything to do with his size and strength. That was a wonderful family to point to when parents/students lost sight of reality with sports/activities.

  4. Great example – I’ve seen the opposite – the “you need to excel in sports in high school in order to get a scholarship so you can be successful in life” mindset is a horrifying message to me.

    What if the kid gets hurt in HS and can’t play anymore? The above quote then means his/her life is now over? Or if s/he cannot get a scholarship (let’s face it, the competition for ANY atheletic scholarship is phenomenal)? Does that also mean life is now over? I sure hope not.

    I know a few parents who were BMOC in high school, and seemed to spend their entire adult lives trying to revel in their glory days…but I was reminded by Facing the Giants that eventually “even trophies get covered in dust and forgotten” – I’ve always taught my kids to never listen or believe “these are the best days of your life” – cause once that phase (HS, college, whatever) is passed, the implication is that life is now either over, or at least less meaningful…EVERY day is the best day of my life (even on bad days, and I struggle to tell myself that sometimes) – especially if we are living it to glorify God and spread the gospel.

    Our kids need to find their own path and their own passion – and as parents, it’s often a good idea to let them encounter struggles on that path (not so much failing at something, but helping them over the hurdles, teaching them adversity is something to face head on) as part of learning. Every great lesson in life I’ve learned the hard way, sometimes because I deliberately ignored parental “wisdom” (“don’t flunk out of college, or we’ll cut you off” – I was dumb enough to call their bluff. They did.)

    Great insights Adam – keep ’em coming!

  5. My own 16 year old son just informed us that God affirmed his calling into urban ministry this summer. This has been affirmed by our faith community as well. But I must admit that I, for the longest time, tried to “force” him into my mold of what I thought he should be. He is so passionate about this calling and is a natural at it when he engages it. I hate to think what might have happened if we hadn’t learned to let go and let him explore first his own relationship with God and second how he was called to live that out.

    That is our new goal as parents of three more pre-adolescent kids, to walk with them and help them discern what it is God has called them to do.

    1. That’s cool Chris.

      I wonder, as I check my heart against my words, will I really think their dreams are cooler than my dreams? I mean… what if my kids dream about things that take them far from God? Am I OK with that?

      It’s the unconditional part of it that people struggle with in their kids dreams for themselves. We are always excited about their dreams when they are in the shadow of what we’d dreamed. The “rub” comes when that is drastically different than our dreams.

      I’ve met parents who have pretty much cut off relationships with their own children in the name of Jesus over this. They didn’t date the right person. They had sex before marriage. They came out of the closet, etc.

      I just don’t ever want to be a parent where my kids think that my love and dream for them is conditional. No matter what they do, they are my kid and I will chose to be proud of them.

  6. Adam, I think you just succinctly answered the question “how do I be the best parent I can be” (with apologies to the 1980’s Army slogan) in textbook fashion!

    “I just don’t ever want to be a parent where my kids think that my love and dream for them is conditional. No matter what they do, they are my kid and I will chose to be proud of them.”

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