On Parenting: Raise Adults not Children

Part 11 of 11 on Parenting Principles

One of the most important leadership principles that I've learned over the years is to begin with the end in mind. When it comes to parenting this might be the most true thing. I was talking parenting one day with a friend and he said, "You know Dan, we're not raising children, we are raising adults." My friend put into words, so succinctly, what we had already been pursuing. I don't think that Amy and I realized that had been the driving principle in our parenting but now that we had words for it, we have shared this with anyone who will listen.

There is a significant difference between raising children and raising adults. I'm not sure we think about this reality enough. If we are raising children then our end goal is to have children. With the rise of extended adolescence we are seeing the results of this parenting principle. We, the adults are making decisions that don't propel children toward adulthood but seek to keep them in a state of childhood.

What do I mean? We are seeing a rise of children with an over-dependence on their parents well past the time they should be. We, parents, love feeling needed. It gives us a sense of identity. I am a mom. I am a dad. When parenthood becomes our identity, when it fills in our, I am, then we will protect that state of being. This has given rise to the now famous "helicopter parents." They follow their children around and hover over them well into what used to be adulthood. If we, parents, are all honest with ourselves we love being needed by our children. And, if raising children is the end that we have in mind then that is where they will stay.

What I don't mean is that we should expose children to adult themes and realities at extremely young ages. Kids growing up too fast is real thing in our day. Many kids are growing up in situations where they have to deal with adult issues at extremely young ages and this creates significant problems too. We need to intentionally give children increasing amounts of responsibility and ownership over their lives. We don't just let a five year old fend for themselves. In some segments of our society this is the sad reality and it has disastrous consequences.

Moving children intentionally toward adulthood begins to shape our thinking about the decisions we make in our parenting. We will be on the lookout for opportunities to hand more authority over to them. This is scary for us as parents, particularly when we find our identities rooted in the children.

For example, let's talk about letting go of dressing our children. When this process begins, most kids will put some crazy combination of clothing on their bodies. Boys, for some reason, typically end up with underwear on their head. As a result, we feel shame because their clothes don't match. This is much of the reason why we are afraid to hand over the reins of getting dressed. We don't want to look bad because our kids are a mess. Giving over ownership and authority to a child doesn't mean that we disengage from their process. They are learning a new skill and that means that we need to work with them in developing that skill. So, we help them learn to make appropriate choices in their wardrobe. Some days, wearing your princess costume is appropriate and other days it's not. They won't know when those days are unless we help them through it.

This process of teaching new skills and then letting go is difficult for parents. It's difficult because it's time consuming and exhausting. It's just easier if I dress them. Indeed it is, but it doesn't help you move toward the goal of raising an adult. There will be lots of things in their lives that will be easier if you just do it for them. But, easier is not always better. At the same time, there will be days when you’re exhausted, when your nerves have been stretched to the end, and you just need to get them dressed and out the door. Sometimes, we need to go that route. Remember, there is grace in all of this. It is art not science.

If we start with the goal of raising adults it forces us to ask some important questions. How we answer these questions begins to shape the principles that we will embrace as parents. This is because the answers will help us to see what skills, principles, and values we want to intentionally build into their lives. This gives us a road-map toward the decisions we will make as we parent and seek to move them toward adulthood.

  • What do I consider a successful adult to be like?

  • What kinds of people do I like?

  • What do I wish I would have known as I was stepping out into the world?

  • If I'm a successful parent, what will my kids be like when they are adults?

These are a few questions to wrestle with in your parenting as you think about moving the children entrusted to you towards adulthood.

Amy and I joke that we wanted our kids to grow into adults that we want to go on vacation with. I think we've done that. Just as importantly, I think that our kids want to go on vacation with us. You see, vacations are something you do by choice. You choose how, where, who with, and when, you want to spend your vacation. Most of us want to spend our vacations with people we enjoy being around. As our son and daughter are moving towards being on their own, we are grateful that we want to willingly spend time with them and they with us. They are the kind of adults that we want to be around.

We must start with the end in mind. Knowing where we are going is critical to getting to the destination.