Controlling How Your Children Turn Out

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A Controlled Life,

Part 2:

There are a lot of articles written about the things we can control in life. The most popular things we read about controlling are how much we eat, how much we exercise, and how much money we spend. There are also a number of things that enter our life which we cannot control. Those things can be as brief as the driver who cuts you off in traffic and gives you an unkind gesture, or it can be as enduring and devastating as disease. We really begin to learn about life and who we are when we experience the frustration or suffering that comes when we encounter the things we cannot control.

A number of years ago Kirk and I went on a week-long wilderness trek into the Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. When we arrived at basecamp we were told a boy had been pulled out of his tent and mauled by a bear while camping on one of the lakes where we would be camping. During training for setting up camp and securing food it was drilled into our heads that no food could be carried into our tents, not even scented items like toothpaste. Every adult was in charge of a tent of teen girls or boys. Our goal was to have fun and to not get mauled.

When we arrived at basecamp we were told a boy had been pulled out of his tent and mauled by a bear while camping on one of the lakes where we would be camping.

On the day we stayed at the lake where the incident happened, I was startled awake in the middle of the night by a sound outside of my tent. I suddenly remembered I had put a bag of animal crackers in my pocket while I was on the trail earlier that day. When I reached into my pocket my fears were confirmed. A Ziplock of animal crackers were in my pocket and likely luring a large bear to our tent. Another twig nearby snapped. Quietly and slowly I unzipped my sleeping bag and crept to the tent door. I had to protect the girls in my care. I unzipped the tent door just a little bit. The darkness was so deep I couldn’t see anything at all. With all the might I had, I tossed the bag of crackers far into the woods, away from the tent and went back to bed, knowing the bear would be taken in a different direction.

The next morning when I exited the tent I found my crackers 2 feet away from the tent at the base of small tree which had blocked their flight. For all my effort I didn’t know a tree was directly in my way. No matter how much I had trained for this trip, no matter how much equipment I had, that unseen tree stopped the direction of the crackers I threw.

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For me, adoptive parenting was the “wilderness” where I have learned the most valuable lessons about life so far. I had dreamed about being a mom for a very long time, watched examples of people I thought were good parents, and read books. I not only felt prepared, I knew I would be good at it. The old me knew parenting was simply a matter of love and discipline, which applied consistently would result in an idealistic beautiful family. I was completely oblivious to my preconceived ideas about family and my own pride that would clearly come out.

After 16 years of infertility I was able to accept and be at peace with not having children of our own. That journey of loss and acceptance was the beginning of a continuing path. Acceptance came with increased trust in God even in the absence of understanding. Both my husband and I still saw children as a part of our picture, so we decided to adopt. We wanted to help local children available for adoption who were old enough to be unlikely to find a home.

After 16 years of just Kirk and I, we took in two pre-teens. I underestimated the difficulty of entering the parenting of teen years with no foundation of nurturing, trust, or relationship already built with the child. Over the next ten years we would choose to adopt two more times and to take in 1 foster child.

I underestimated the difficulty of entering the parenting of teen years with no foundation of nurturing, trust, or relationship already built with the child.

This parenting journey would brake me. But the pain I felt then has become the greatest thing that happened to me. When I hit bottom in 2013, I began to kick back up to the surface and when I broke the surface I began to breathe deeply of new air. I am a different person. God has been changing my desires and healing the cracks in my heart.

I had been parenting as if I could control how my children would turn out and what they would believe. I had learned to trust God in my life, but I held onto fear and pride in my parenting. I had pride about what others would think and I feared my kids wouldn’t turn out the way I thought they should. This was an exhausting way to live.

I had been parenting as if I could control how my children would turn out and what they would believe.

Early on after one of the kids moved in, they were dealing with a lot of anger over things that had happened in their life. Often, these emotions would come bubbling up in the middle of a church service. Church is a time when you are not involved with other distracting activities and the thoughts can begin to wander. I could tell when the emotions were beginning to leak out of this child, and I learned to be prepared with paper and pens. He would fill the paper with swear words and drawings of people being stabbed. One time the paper had a drawing of a man with a knife sticking in him and the word “dad” above it. It is very possible that someone could have looked over at this drawing and thought some interesting things about the mom and dad sitting right next to the child. I knew the emotions had to come out. After church, at home, I would let him throw the papers into the outside fire-pit and burn them. While raising these hurt children, I had to let go of what other people might think.

As a parent it is good to be proud of your child, but as a parent in the community of other parents, it is easy to use my child as a source of my own pride. The accomplishments of my child can become my own accomplishments. When they fail it can be a source of hurt pride. I wanted an outcome that would make me look good as a parent. How many times have you heard people talk about a successful child and mention how the parents did a great job? This may be true, but some parents who do a great job get very different results. How do you reach out to the parent whose son is in jail? Whose daughter has a probation officer, and whose children enjoy recreational drugs?

Often, when I am sharing with someone about things that are happening in my family, someone will tell me “they will someday look back and appreciate what you have done.” I have said these words to parents too. But it isn’t always true. Some kids go to the grave never turning away from the choices they make. Do we really understand the things we say to each other to try to make each other feel better? As a parent I have often mistakenly thought I was supposed to raise children, so they would someday thank me or at least spend time playing games after family dinners full of laughter. In the middle of the teens years when their gratefulness seemed centuries away I began to question the value of what I was doing with my life. I wondered if I could have chosen a profession that would have had better returns. I didn’t have great stories to tell or an honor student bumper sticker on my car. In the “Hall of fame for parents” I was sitting on the curb in front of the building. Then over time I was joined by other parents on the curb. I was hanging my head down; not sure I could finish this seemingly fruitless job.

I learned a lot about boundaries and control while growing up, and I am grateful for those lessons. Today I even see a lot on social media about how to control children. Boundaries and values are necessary lessons for the child as they grow into adults, but will only result in good behavior on a child that cooperates with you. I parent to the best of my ability but I now understand I do not control who they will become.

A few years ago, I found some advice on Facebook (don’t judge) that seemed to be the answer to getting my teens to do their chores. The post said, “If they won’t do their chores, change the password to the internet and don’t give it out until the list you make of the chalkboard is done”. I thought this was a great idea because one of my kids refused to clean up. The implementation of this idea resulted in one of my kids cleaning their room and the other jumping the wall and not coming back for 2 months. I felt like a parenting fail this time and frankly most of the time.

What do you do when you are that parent? The one whose kids don’t react to the parenting equations the way you think they should? Do you wring your hands and beat yourself up as a parent?  Do you isolate from everyone else who seems to have it all together? Do you quote the verse about raising a child and he will not depart from it, over and over like a magic chant? Can you be a happy productive person if you parent a child that never “turns around?”.

In order to be a joyful person in the middle of difficult circumstances or difficult parenting I have to give God complete copyright credits for the end of the story. A friend of mine recently made this statement.

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In parenting circles I have found it easy to hang our hat on the verse “Train up your child….” This is a Proverb that I considered to be ill used by a lot of us. We quote it and put all our trust on the verse like it’s a magic pill for all our parenting problems. Am I trusting in how I think my children are supposed to turn out, or am I trusting my children to God?

Am I trusting in how I think my children are supposed to turn out,

or am I trusting my children to God?

Larry Crabb in his book Shattered Dreams, talks about remaining faithful even when you are producing weeds. When I began the adoption journey I never counted on the extent of police interaction, theft, drugs, alcohol, property destruction, and verbal abuse that would enter my life. I had to let go of my dreams about my idealistic family and let my children grow up in their story. I had to remain faithful when the weeds were rising above the roof, I had to love even when the love was rejected. Now I try every day to remember God not only has my story but my children’s stories in His hands. Some days are harder than others to remember this. Their journey and the end results cannot be controlled by me. This enables me to love them as they are, free from fear about their future.

In February this year, my youngest child made the national missing person’s list for two weeks. Kirk and I didn’t really see it coming. There were some indications she might run but until it happened, and she didn’t come back, it wasn’t a reality. My husband and I went through all the emotions of grief without resolution. We didn’t know where she was or in how much danger she was. We knew she wasn’t in the safe confines of our home. The emotions we felt during that time were full circle from fear, to anger, to sadness. Trusting God did not mean we would not feel negative emotions.  We knew we could not have stopped our daughter from walking out the door that night. We also knew we were doing all we could to find her.

When our daughter walked in the door 14 days later we never found out what happened. We are still in the middle of our children’s story, still learning to trust. The dream I used to have about happy family dinners and shared lives has given way to enjoying every single moment I have the privilege to enjoy. Family doesn’t have to look a certain way anymore. This weekend I was able to spend some time with two of my oldest daughters. We got our nails done, then had some Dutch Bros. and took a selfie together. Every look between us, every small moment of laughter, and smile between us was joy. I was grateful for the small moments of their story I got to be a part of and for my own story that God was continuing to shape.

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Some of the things I learned in my wilderness journey:

Don’t compare the chaos in your house to the “other” family on social media.

Put your marriage ahead of the children.

Give up ownership of how you think your children should turn out.

Trust the goodness of God no matter what.

 

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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