My beautiful niece, and awesome Mom of two adventurous boys, recently posed a dilemma to me that I think we all face as parents:
“I’m trying to find a balance between stalker mom and latch key kids. I would like to know what mistakes to let them make and when to step in.”
Well, here, let me make a definitive list!
Oh, if only it could be so easy, then parenting wouldn’t only be for the heroic! Just open the instruction manual to the chapter entitled “Acceptable Risks For Children to Take” and go from there. Sadly, there are no manuals to read, because every individual child, and every risk, and the combination of the two, creates a unique situation where parents have to make a judgement call. Sometimes it is easy to make that call. Do you grab the two-year old by any available appendage before she runs out into the street? Well, yes. But do you protect your kids from every possible risk? Wrap them in a protective bubble? I think not.
I am not sure that I am the most qualified to answer this question, because I am known for being a bit, shall we say, “over-involved” in my kids’ life? Haha… But here are my thoughts.
Start young, and let your children experience as many “natural consequences” as possible. If they want to climb a sturdy tree in shorts, let them! If they skin their legs then they will learn either a) wear long pants next time or b) to climb more carefully. I would recommend that you don’t try and stop your children from running, climbing, playing physically, riding trikes, bikes or scooters and allow them to crash and burn a few times (just make sure your health insurance is paid up!). It helps them to start to learn, intuitively, that there are natural consequences to their actions. Your job as a diligent parent is to be sure their environment is relatively safe, and away from cars, rusty nails and broken glass. But, beyond that they need to explore their environment with their body, and experience how they move and fit within their environment.
As they get older, continue allowing natural consequences to do their teaching, but you may need to start teaching another natural consequence, one that is not as obvious as the physical natural consequences. So it will require teaching.
Honesty equals Trust…
As early as you feel that you think they can begin to understand (maybe as early as three years old), you need to start teaching your children that above all else they must be honest with you. The best way to start this life lesson is by setting a good example. Do not lie to your children! That doesn’t mean you need to bare your soul to them, and it is perfectly acceptable to tell them that certain things are adult matters and not their concern. However, the things that you do tell them need to be truthful, and promises you make need to be kept, and consequences that you warn them with must be followed through! This is why:
Honesty equals trust. And, as your child grows older,
Trust equals Freedom…
It is another natural consequence, but far more difficult to teach, that when a child lies to you, or sneaks around behind your back, or makes poor choices when they aren’t under you direct supervision, then your level of trust in them plummets.
I try to teach this natural consequence to my children by
a) Pointing it out to them (incessantly, I think they would say) verbally, and with hand drawn pictures when necessary.
b) Rewarding good choices and honesty by giving them more freedom. And, again, pointing out that natural consequence to them; “Since you made good choices when we went to the park, and stayed where I could see you and played nicely, I think I can trust you to do the same thing if we take a trip to the zoo! Good job!” I think it is as important to point out the times when they make good choices as it is to point out their lies and bad choices.
c) Imposing consequences on bad choices, lies or sneakiness by stating right up front that “While I really want to trust you and believe what you are saying, what you just did takes away some of that trust.” Then, if possible (and sometimes it takes a creative mind) impose a restriction of the freedom they just violated. “You lied to me about which friend’s house you were going to, so next time I will have to call your friend’s mom before you leave the house, and again after you get there. It is my job to keep you safe, and I need to know where you are, at all times.”
d) Reminding them that the natural consequence of trust is an act of nature. It is not something you can control. It is not a choice you make. If they lie to you, (or sneak around, or make bad choices) then you simply will not be able to trust them. The good news is that trust is like a well in your heart; they can either fill or empty the well depending on their actions. A child can re-gain trust by being more trustworthy. It simply takes time. You need to pay attention to their actions, appreciate (out loud) when they are being truthful, and note when they are not. Then balance it all out (no easy feat) when making your decisions. Some people call it “gut instinct”. I trust my gut instinct more than my daughter, sometimes. I will tell her “no” if I feel like I can’t trust her to make a good choice in a given situation. And I will tell her why, if she asks. (She usually knows.)
e) Reminding them that it is your job to keep them safe, and it is your responsibility to make choices on what they are and aren’t allowed to do, based of course on the activity itself, as well as their ability to make good choices and to be trustworthy. Think a situation through (rarely is there a need for rash decisions), then make a confident, sure decision. Don’t let them guilt you into backing down. “You never trust me!” is a cry for another explanation about how they can regain that trust by being trustworthy. Period.
So, how do you find a balance between stalker-mom and latch-key kids? By letting them experience as many natural consequences as you can safely allow them to experience, and by teaching your kids, from the very youngest age possible, to be trustworthy, and then, when they merit it, trust them!
And trust yourself. Trust your gut instincts.