When Sheltering Your Children Goes Too Far

I’m all for sheltering your children—to a point. It’s good to protect young children from the violence and ugliness of the evening news. They also don’t need to see the violence, sexuality, and profanity that shows up in some movies and video games. They deserve an opportunity to enjoy their childhood without worrying about whether an enemy will invade our country or fearing they might get shot by a drive-by shooter.  While those things may happen, we don’t need to instill that fear in our young children—they just aren’t equipped to handle it. Yes, there are children in other parts of the world who are exposed to unspeakable atrocities, but it isn’t an ideal situation. Their parents would prefer an alternative for their little ones just as we would.

The point is, it’s good to protect our children from things even adults struggle to understand. But, whether it’s because of our own fears and anxieties or because we feel a great responsibility to “get it right” with our kids, we sometimes overdo our protective measures.

This is especially true in a Christian home. When we are raising our children to put their trust in a powerful and loving God, we can try too hard to make life perfect. We want them to believe that God’s ways are always right and that he always answers prayer. That everything he does is for our good. Those statements are all true.

But, if we try so hard to keep our kids from having to deal with difficult situations, we fail to equip them to process life’s events. They don’t know what to do when their prayers don’t seem to get answered, or when something tragic happens that we can’t explain.

I’ve prayed for my grandchildren ever since the first one was born. I’ve prayed for their health and their safety. But the fact that my little granddaughter cut her hand and lost the full function of her index finger, or that my grandson developed type 1 diabetes doesn’t mean God ignored my prayers. It simply means he has a different plan than the one I asked for.

When one of my sons was six, he lost his best friend in a car accident. How do you tell your little boy that his friend is gone but God is still good? It wasn’t easy, but we had already laid a foundation of trust in our boys through the many difficulties we had faced as a family. We tried to protect them from the ugliest parts of life but not from all the sorrow and suffering. And a few years after that accident, one of my older boys lost a friend in a hiking accident and do you know who understood his grief? That younger brother who’d lost a friend when he was only six.

I think this is particularly important to me because I had to learn this much later in life and it shook my faith for a while. I was quite sheltered as a child, but not raised in a Christian environment so when hard things happened, I had no place to turn. My parents did their best to make our childhood a time of peace, security, and love. I certainly felt loved by all of my extended family but didn’t understand that there was a loving God who was there for me. When the adults in my life couldn’t explain why life could be so hard, I didn’t know how to turn to God.

When I was in middle school, I watched as my great-grandmother slowly died from cancer. She was 82 and died at home with my mother and grandmother caring for her. It was a natural progression, and I was sad but not shaken by it. Then when I was 21 and had become a Christian, my grandmother died from a series of strokes. I sat with her for several days as I watched her slip away. But even being in the room as she breathed her last, I wasn’t asking questions with no answers. I still felt peace at the natural passing of my beloved grandma because she knew the Lord and would spend eternity with him.

Then when I was 30, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I wasn’t ready to lose her even though she was a believer and her eternity was assured.  I needed her; my children needed their grandma in their lives as I’d had mine until I was an adult.  I watched my mom suffer for 18 months as I cried out desperately to God to heal her. But he didn’t heal her. And I was angry. I decided it was no use praying about things because God did what he wanted to regardless of what I asked. It took me years to resolve this because I had believed that God always answered prayer and my faith had never been tested to this extreme. Until my mother died, I’d never been to a funeral in my family. (My grandmother and great-grandmother didn’t have a service, honoring my grandfather’s wishes.) I had no idea how to handle this loss.

I didn’t want this struggle for my children so I allowed them to see me wrestle with the difficulties of life, and with seven sons, there were many opportunities! Here are some things I learned that may help you find a balance for your family.

Allow your children to see you disagree with your spouse. This doesn’t mean fighting in front of them. You’re to be a role model of how a healthy marriage works by demonstrating healthy responses and methods to resolve issues. Show your kids that you can love someone and still disagree with them.

Allow your children to experience loss. Whether it’s the loss of a pet, or a parent’s job, or losing a loved one, you can show them how to grieve in a healthy way. And point them to God as the ultimate source of comfort.

Allow your children to experience disappointment. This was the hardest one for me. I never wanted to see my kids disappointed, so I sometimes went too far in preventing this from happening naturally. It broke my heart to see them sad! But don’t set your kids up for disappointment on a regular basis by telling them to expect things and then never following through. This just builds distrust and frustration instead of resilience.

Teach your children to wait. Impatience is at epidemic levels in our society. Everyone wants what they want—right now! Our children need to learn to wait for things. Surprises are great but it is also important that they know about things ahead of time and learn to wait patiently. Besides, anticipation can be part of the enjoyment as they wait for an event or activity. Waiting is also a good skill to teach regarding change. We get impatient when we don’t see the outcome we are hoping for and must learn to leave it in God’s hands and wait for him to move. 

The principle that pulls together these suggestions is this: while it’s good to shelter our kids from things they shouldn’t have to handle, we live in a world where those things will happen. If we shield our kids completely, when they face these inevitable challenges, they will have no idea how to process them. They will be in danger of a crisis of faith like I had when my mother died. 

Providing situations for this exposure to the difficulties of life can sometimes be done intentionally but often things happen without warning. We need to consider these scenarios and plan ahead of time how much we want our children to experience. This isn’t always possible, but any forethought we’ve applied to these situations will be helpful in the long run.

How Not to Be a Smothering Parent

As a homeschooler, I have always been very aware of the cultural trend toward keeping children overly supervised “for their own good.” Because of this, I found myself becoming concerned about letting my kids outside while others were in school. What would people think? Would my kids be in trouble for having such freedom? But then I would think, “how will they ever be independent if I keep them tied so close to me?” It brought to mind that saying we used to hear about being “tied to your mother’s apron strings.” It was considered a negative observation.

I finally decided that I was going to let them grow up. Let them be individuals. But as I watched people around me, not just homeschoolers, but all parents, I saw something unsettling.

The cord between parent and child is getting shorter instead of longer. It used to be that the parenting model was to gradually give your children more and more responsibility and freedom with their own lives. Now it seems that a parent becomes negligent if they so much as let their child walk around the corner out of sight for a split second.

I’ve read many articles lately that discuss the challenges that parents are facing from the general public as well as the legal system concerning what is seen as responsible parenting and what is not. I am a baby boomer and my generation remembers well the freedom that we had as children.

I remember my summers as times to take off on my bike and ride anywhere I pleased in our small college town. I could ride to the local swimming pool six blocks from home, stay for hours, and then ride home on my own. As long as I was home for dinner and then again before the street lights came on, I was fine. I walked to school with just the neighborhood kids, or sometimes by myself when I was in the first grade. No big deal. I suspect that the very idea of sending a first grader several blocks to school alone horrifies a young parent today.

How did we get here? How did we become so deathly afraid of letting them grow up? I know, everyone immediately jumps to the argument about human trafficking and the dangers that exist for a child in our culture. But why has American culture become so fearful?

I recently read an article titled, From Tokyo to Paris, Parents Tell Americans to Chill, that discussed free-range parenting from an international perspective. It seems we are lagging behind the rest of the world in training our children to be independent. Or perhaps it’s that we used to be better at it and have lost perspective.

If you research the crime statistics over the past fifty years you will find that the number of crimes has steadily decreased. This includes those committed against children. It is actually, statistically safer for kids today than it was when I was growing up in the 60s. So why all the hyped stress?

I think we are more fearful today because we have been trained to fear EVERYTHING. We fear illness, having our identity stolen, mass shootings, being injured in an accident, having our home broken into, and having our children abducted. And the list gets longer every day. We spend more money on safety measures than ever before.

And in the process of being more fearful, we have become smothering parents. Our kids can’t do anything unsupervised. So why are we surprised when 20-somethings are still living at home and expecting their parents to make all their decisions for them?

I think the remedy lies in a few common-sense principles.

First, learn to trust yourself as a parent. You know your kids better than anyone. You can judge when they are ready for an increase in responsibility and freedom. Stop listening to the running commentary about how it’s reckless to allow your kids to learn to think for themselves before they turn eighteen. There will be times when you have to trust your gut. You just know that something is good or bad for your child. It must come from inside you, not from the opinions of others. God gave your child to YOU for a reason. I have said this often to homeschoolers that I’ve coached over the years. You are the person best equipped to parent your child.

Trust your children. They are smart. Probably much smarter than you think. They can figure things out if given time and encouragement. They want to feel successful in their decision making. They want to explore their own interests.

One of the most important things I learned as a homeschooler is to trust my boys to make choices. Sometimes I didn’t agree with them at all. Sometimes they went ahead and did something against my advice. Most times, after a while, they finally came around and realized their mistake. They learned valuable lessons from those times.

Give your children a firm foundation of your values and let them learn from their mistakes. They won’t always get it right. But did you? I’m sure you can instantly think of actions you took when you were young that were less than responsible. Maybe they are even embarrassing to think about now. But you still grew into an adult that can manage your life. They will too.

Finally, trust God with your children. He designed them. He has a plan for them. He placed your children in the right environment to allow that plan to be birthed. He can protect and guide our children much better than we can. But He’s chosen to give us the privilege to participate in the amazing process of raising a child. You can trust yourself and your child all day long but if you don’t entrust that precious one to God, you will always be fretting and worrying about their safety, their choices, and their future.

So try to loosen your hold a little and let your children experience childhood. There are so many opportunities that will encourage them to become independent individuals. But they can’t do it if they are still tied to their mother’s apron strings. Let go and see them fly!