This was originally posted to my old blog on 18 February 2014.
Raising kids is like training someone to captain a very big boat. There’s a lot of theory to learn, as well as a lot of practical skills to master.
If you give the trainee too much control too soon, the experience will be terrifying. Insecurity abounds, manifesting in various ways depending on the personality of the trainee. At the same time you have to start letting the trainee participate in the steering of the ship in very small ways. My dad, a fount of wisdom who in addition to his dad experience also happens to hold a PhD in Education, always said to me when my own were small: no long explanations, you lose the kid after a few words. No abundance of choices, two or three at the most: too many choices make even adults unhappy. Above all, the child must know that they know that they know that you are in control. If you feel in your heart that ultimately you are not in control, they will know it, they’ll feel it, and this will not lead to a happy home.
Next the trainee must be given more and more responsibility and control as they become ready for it. Withholding control of the good ship from its rightful captain when the captain is ready for it, will result in mutiny. Understanding and communication is so vital in this stage. The rule is extremely simple and must be applied consistently: show responsibility and you’ll earn trust, the currency of freedom. This rule works both ways: the trainee must understand that to earn freedom, they must first earn trust. Trust is hard work to gather, and even harder work to regain if it is lost. The trainer at the same time must understand that they, too, earn trust, and are able to lose it. The trainee must be able to trust you to let go when they are able to take over.
Finally, while in the early years a child’s life and choices must be controlled, this control must be seen as a necessary but temporary arrangement. You must always understand that this is not your life. The control in the early years is crucial, it must be firm but flexible (and certainly not too flexible), but it is equally crucial that this control relaxes and disappears as soon as possible. Like training wheels on a bicycle, it must be there for the child’s own wellbeing at first, but it will become a liability if left on the bicycle when it is no longer needed. Once the trainee can steer the ship, the trainer becomes an advisor, who can caution, who can counsel, but who must never take control of the wheel again. Even if the captain chooses to steer the ship into waters you know will be disastrous, you may not wrest the wheel from their hands and try to steer the ship where you think it should go. The captain will never, never simply give the wheel to you, they will always fight for control, resulting in a mess of a course.
Much better to let them know you have no desire to touch the wheel, to earn that trust we spoke of so they’ll listen to your advice and value your guidance. The whole parenting relationship is, in fact, a balancing act of trust between the parent and the child, when you dig to the foundation. And if you look at the bedrock that trust rests on, you’ll find it is called respect.