The coach finishes his post-game pep talk then holds up the coveted game ball. He’s ready to announce tonight’s recipient. I glance at my son, his eyes wide in anticipation. I can almost hear his slow intake of breath, the butterflies of possibility fluttering in his stomach. I’ve been there on pageant stages, at cheerleader tryouts, the waiting to hear your name announced yet knowing deep down it probably isn’t going to happen. C closes his eyes hoping to hear his name. Tonight was his best game of the season, but he plays on a team of standouts, and their plays and displays outshone his. “Tonight’s game ball goes to….” I don’t remember whose name was called; I just know it wasn’t his.
My little man walks up to me with his brave face. “I didn’t get it again.” Before he can finish, quiet tears trickle down to his chin. I put my arm around him and quickly usher him to the car before his disappointment morphs into embarrassment, as well. Safely in the car, he sighs, “It’s the same guys every week, Mommy. I’m trying my best and getting better. Will I ever get a game ball?” These are those parenting moments that honestly leave me grasping. I’ve read all the correct responses, heard all the proper parenting techniques, but my heartbroken boy needs something more than psychology. I utter a quick prayer, turn around and take his little eight-year-old hand in mine and say, “Buddy, I know it is so disappointing when you work so hard. I’m sorry. I’ve been there, and here’s what I think. You can’t control what everyone else does, but you can control you, so my advice is to just keep on going out there and playing the best baseball you can play. Don’t quit. Keep doing you the best you can.” I turn around and start the car to the sound of small sobs not knowing if anything I said resonated…..
My daughter and I eagerly rush up the sidewalk to cooking camp. She precariously balances two glass casserole dishes, while I lug a bag filled with mixing bowls, an apron, and other cooking supplies. This is the first time A is attending something at the invitation of a new Nashville friend, so I know she is a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Our move to a big, new city hasn’t been easy on my preteen, so I’m filled with relief at the recent change in her attitude. We spot her friend, and I immediately see a visible change in my girl’s demeanor. Her friend has brought another friend. For most children, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but A struggles with insecurity and a disdain for surprises, and I can almost hear the dialogue in her head. I wasn’t good enough so she invited someone else….what if they leave me out and decide just to cook together…..what if the new girl doesn’t like me.
I greet the other mom, and she quickly introduces A and me to the other girl. I’m overly friendly in an effort to buffer A’s overt rudeness. We enter the kitchen to sign in the girls when A shoves the casserole dishes into my hands and marches out of the room. Not sure what to do, I follow her out. She’s marching to the car when I insist she stop. “We are not leaving. You are going right back into that room. I know you are disappointed and not sure what to expect today, but you need to give that sweet girl a chance. I have a feeling you’ll all be fast friends by the end of the day.” I can read her mind through her expression. We’ve been in situations like these more times than I can count. Her fears are hijacking her rational mind, so I try to reassure her to no avail. She agrees to go back inside but sits down at a table alone. I fight the urge to drag her over to her baffled friend. I simply place her cooking gear on the table, say “I love you,” and walk out the door, questioning my parenting the rest of the day.
I’ll admit it. I battle insecurity as a mom. I want to do everything just right. I want there to be a foolproof, fail-proof, how-to guide for every potential parenting crisis that might erupt. I want to take every battle my kids face and fight it for them. I want to make all the yuckiness and hurt of childhood magically go away. I want to intervene and make it all better. This is the battle I face often as a mom, especially as the mom of a very sensitive, strong-willed girl. But I can’t. I’m learning that I must allow my children to fight their own battles.
Now, let me be clear. When I start talking about allowing my kids to walk through battles on their own, I am not talking about anything that puts my kids in mortal, moral, or true emotional danger. I’m talking about those things kids face like not being chosen for a team, not getting the role they want in the school play, disagreements with friends, homesickness at camp, stage fright, leaving an assignment at home, failing a test, all the things we want to jump in and save our kids from are the very things I’m discovering to which I need to release them. We live in a society where hovering, helicopter parenting is at its worst. I’ve been convicted of this in my own parenting more times than I care to confess. But, as many college deans who get phone calls from frantic moms over their kids’ grades or 911 operators who receive calls from twenty year old co-eds who can’t kill a spider in their dorm will attest, we are ruining our kids’ ability to handle and resolve conflict.
One of my most vivid memories is not making cheerleader for my junior year. I was mortified, embarrassed, devastated; you name it, I felt it. I came home to a friend who’d brought a lovely bouquet of flowers, and I ignored my friend, dramatically ran to my room, slammed the door, flung myself on the bed a la Scarlett O’hara, and wept. My wise mom came to me and basically told me that while she understood my disappointment, that it in no way gave me permission to be rude or self-consumed, that I was not the center of the universe and to get out of my room and apologize to my friend.
Later, my mom told this moping drama queen to go forth and find a new passion. That missing out on cheerleader, though painful, was not the end of the world. Ultimately, I ran for junior class president, won, and planned one of the, likely THE, prettiest prom my high school has ever seen. I also had one of my best school years ever because I immersed myself in other passions and discovered that I didn’t really even like cheering that much. In today’s society, many moms would get overly involved in seeing their baby girls disappointed and would demand they be put on the squad, threaten to sue if the rules weren’t changed and other dramatic routes. I’ve personally seen that happen, and what does that teach our children. That they are entitled, that they are never meant to feel or experience pain and disappointment.
It hurts to watch your child hurt, but I can’t save my child from every hardship. I can’t and I won’t. Normally, when my children experience a rocky road, I pray that God would make it all okay, that He would deliver them from whatever crisis they’re currently facing, but the Holy Spirit is encouraging me to stop praying shallow prayers. Making it all better doesn’t develop character or faith in my children, so I’m learning to take a deep breath and jump in the deep end of praying, “Thy will be done.” Those are the hardest prayers I ever pray. “Thy will be done.” But, and I’ve parented through a lot of difficult moments in my life, I must trust that God is good. Period. And whatever He has planned for my children is to their ultimate good and His ultimate glory.
You see, God never promised us an easy path. One of my parenting models is in John where Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is describing to the disciples, who let’s face it resemble children more than they would have probably liked to admit, what they will face when He leaves, and He lovingly says to them in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be COURAGEOUS. I have conquered the world.” Then He proceeds to pray the most precious prayer in scripture for His disciples. It’s like a father praying over his children.
As I read this, I feel the Spirit saying, as parents we must ask ourselves, “In this situation do I need to protect or prepare my children?” There are times we must protect our children from harm, but are we also called to protect them from discomfort and disappointment? What if my intervention prevents my children from leaning a spiritual truth? What if I distort what God is trying to teach my child in the middle of a tough moment? How will my little ones develop problem-solving skills and true mettle if I’m always meddling? I often find myself parenting to the expectations of others. Our family counselor, though, is confirming what I inherently know. I know my children better than anyone except God. I know basically what they are and are not capable of handling on their own; I know when to push and when to step back. I know when to offer advice and when to allow them the fruit of the struggle. I must learn to parent leaning on the wisdom and discernment that the Holy Spirit provides. I’m discovering those moments where I step back and watch my kids struggle and wrestle on their own and discover their capacity to problem solve and handle conflict are the moments where my children truly begin to thrive.
I arrive a few hours later to pick up A. My anxious stomach flutters at all the possibilities of what I might see when I pick her up. My beaming daughter greets me arm in arm with the friend who invited her and her new friend, the other girl invited by my daughter’s friend. “We had so much fun!” I’m frankly stunned. I expected to pick up a sullen, angry daughter who’s fuming because I left her to fend for herself, but here’s a girl with a newfound sense of confidence. I even discovered from A’s friend’s mom that A apologized to both girls for making them feel uncomfortable and joined in the fun. I am bursting with joy because friends, it has been a rocky ride at times. Upon learning this, I envelope my girl in a bear hug and whisper, “I am so proud of you for your courage.” What she would have missed if I’d given in to her pleas to leave or if I had tried to smooth everything over with her friends. Instead, she experienced true growth as a person.
A few days later, my husband, A, and I are standing in front of the same dugout, watching C draw his breath, yet again, in anticipation. The coach holds up the game ball and says, “Tonight’s game ball goes to a young man who may not always make the big plays, but he is the first teammate to give a high-five. No matter what he gives it his all. He cheers encouragement from the field or from the bench. He never quits and he picks up those around him.” Y’all, I immediately began to cry because I knew he was describing my son. “This game ball goes to C!” My stunned son’s mouth stretches into a wide smile. He takes the ball he’s earned and holds it high over his head. I could have interfered and intervened, but this triumph wouldn’t have come. C was recognized for his character, for those qualities that are only refined through the fire of disappointment and struggle. Yet again, I hug one of my children, and whisper, “I am so proud of you for not giving up.”
Because it is my job, with God’s grace, guidance, and help, to prepare my children for life when I’m not there. How will they respond to trials, disappointments, and conflicts if my deep motherly desire to intervene and make it all go away for them wins out? Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Perhaps she had Romans 5:3-4 in mind when she penned that. “Not only that but we rejoice in our troubles, for trouble produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.” May God give me the wisdom to know when to step into trouble with my children and when to step aside and watch them soar.