How many days does it take to raise a child? Depends on who’s counting and how you define the outcome, of course. Let’s say 6,570 days (365 days X 18 years). That’s a lot of days, on the one hand, and shockingly few on the other. And we spend so many of them simply trying to keep our kids alive, right? My sisters and I used to complain that our infants didn’t seem to have the will to live. Probably they did, but it seemed to us like we were keeping them alive by sheer will–ours, not theirs.
And toddlerhood? Same song, different verse. Our kids did not want to eat their food, they did not want to sleep (or go potty, or get dressed). They did not want to look both ways before crossing the street or hold our hands in the parking lot.
They did, however, very much want to stick their fingers, along with metal forks, into the electrical outlets in our living room. They wanted to climb onto the back of the couch and balance on one tan, chubby leg. They wanted to cover their heads with their blankies and spin in circles. They wanted to follow that up with running into the refrigerator. They most certainly wanted to lean forward in the Wal-Mart shopping cart in which they were seated and curl their lips and tongue around the handle while we searched for the Great Value oatmeal.
We had to take care of them because they couldn’t take care of themselves. And then they grew. Their needs changed, but we still felt the mother’s siren call to protect them. We got a little wiser, of course. We realized that falling out of a stroller, face first, in the driveway, is painful and unpleasant–but not deadly (though we may have cancelled our dinner plans when we realized our toddler was going to have a shiner). We figured out that a kid doesn’t need antibiotics or even a trip to the doctor every, single time he gets a runny nose. We quickly discovered that matching socks on little feet are majorly overrated.
But there are new dangers now that our kids are older, ones that make us long for the days of busted lips and Wal-Mart germs. We confront the news of school shootings, the proliferation of internet porn, the self-centered odor of a declining culture that calls evil, good and good, evil, the sedative of the almighty screen. We’re tempted to throw up our hands and say, It’s impossible to keep our kids safe, to preserve their childhoods, their innocence. It’s either look-the-other-way or buy a farm somewhere and work the land in isolation. (Believe me, I’ve been tempted to do this. That is, until I think about all the animals and work and cooking. See?) We aren’t sure how to stem the tide of all that wants to drown our kids, our hearts.
Giving up is not an option. What if we’d said it was too hard to keep our babies fed and warm, that they seemed to want to sleep forever and never eat, so we had to let them do their thing? Or what if I’d figured that my toddler should just walk in the parking lot his own darn self? Live and learn, right? No.
It wasn’t OK to throw in the towel then and it’s not OK now.
On the other hand, as our children get older they have to develop what a dear friend of mine referred to as “choice muscles.” They have to be exposed, thoughtfully, intentionally, to things that might hurt them in order to help them discern what is good and what is bad. At the proper times (and I admit I don’t know exactly when these are), they have to be given the chance to make meaningful choices–ones that might hurt them, might hurt us. Most of us have seen what happens to kids who are so sheltered, for so long, that they are bewildered by the world when they finally live in it. We’ve watched them come untethered to the things they’d been taught to hold dear.
That’s also not OK.
Two of my kids are in middle school now, and one is well on her way. It’s an awkward time. My kids still need my husband and me but it’s different than before. In some ways I look back with longing on the time when it was obvious how I should take care of them. Wipe this nose, change that diaper. But this is an exciting time, too, as I see them maturing and growing. This is how it’s supposed to be and I am learning to walk the tightrope, my arms floating out from my sides. I wobble up here and am tempted to look down at the abyss below me. On one side, I could careen down into the cavern of overprotection, of stunted growth, of butterflies pulled out of cocoons. On the other, I could fall headlong into the valley of Anything Goes, neglecting my job as defender and preserver of childhood while it lasts.
Parenting feels like a circus act nowadays but there is One who is there, guiding, promising. He loves my children more than I do, though that is hard for me to imagine. And he’s given me a great husband who tells me that, sometimes, I just need to laugh at the crazy. He’s a good foil in my times of hand wringing. (Kids need moms and dads, I’ve found over and over). I’ll leave these ramblings with a Facebook status I posted not long ago, highlighting the difference in the way my husband protects the kids:
Some evenings Husband and I like to go to Baskin Robbins and then drive around listening to 80’s music on the radio. Of course, our kids are often with us when we do this. So how does Daddy deal with the occasional, uh, inappropriate lyrics that Sir Mix-A-Lot incorporates into his, um, songs? Why, Daddy yells nonsense over aforementioned words, at the top of his lungs, with no warning, in the enclosed space of our minivan. I almost had a heart attack tonight. One of these days you’re gonna kill me, babe…
And there you have it.
What do you do to maintain the balance between freedom and protection in your kids’ lives?