An anxious mother posed the question that troubled her: “What can you do when your child wanders off? When you find her again, how do you teach her never to do that again?”
For this mother the question was not academic. Only a few days earlier her 3-year-old had wandered off while she was watching a Little League game. In a panic she hunted for her child. It took several minutes to find the child, during which time she imagined the worst. Her instinctive answer to her question was evident in the action she had taken when the girl was found; she grabbed her little girl and spanked her furiously. The mother was clearly anxious about her child’s welfare even if she was not sure how to promote it.
When we envision the parenting journey before the birth of our first child, we commonly create a mental image tinged with warmth and fluff. “Our family will be close and happy.” I have never known anyone who launched the parenting journey expecting it to be like a protracted World War II battle.
We all made those qualifying comments about having children—“I know there will be hard times . . .”—but we clearly didn’t expect to be brutalized by the experience. We expected maybe two tantrums and a few bad diapers. Most of us failed to read the parental fine print.
Actually I do not recommend warfare as the right metaphor for childrearing. Cultivating a beautiful garden may be more apt. A successful garden requires patience, vigilance, and wisdom. A fine garden is not created in a week. Nor is it the result of neglect, benign or otherwise.
If ever there was a domain where brute hope exceeded preparation it would be parenting (though marriage might come in second). How many people do you know who have made a study not only of the best parenting recommendations but also of the best parenting reactions by successful parents? I don’t think I have ever known anyone who has. Parenting generally entails failures of proactivity of epic proportions.
Let’s take this back to the ball field. What was the sin of the 3-year-old who wandered off? She was guilty of being a child. Children naturally explore and discover. Children, including most 3-year-olds, do not naturally keep track of their parents and their parents’ concerns. Rather it is the job of adults to plan ahead, to set themselves and their children up for success.
Let’s re-write the script for that trip to the ballpark. Any parent who is planning to do anything with a child should plan ahead. “What will Maddy do while I watch the game?” If the answer is “She will make herself and everyone at the game miserable,.” then we should arrange a different activity for Maddy. But if, based on our knowledge of the child and the setting for the game, we can see a way to have a positive experience, then we make appropriate provisions. We may take toys for the child to play with. We may take a folding chair so that we can sit near a play area where she can play. Or maybe we sit at the end of the bleachers and let Maddy kick a ball nearby. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of correction.
As you think about proactivity in parenting, consider the routine trip to the grocery store with children. Before going to the store, have you ever asked yourself, “What do I need to do to make this a good experience for both me and my child?”
There are many possible answers:
- Don’t take this child to the store.
- Delay the trip to the store until you are both rested and peaceful.
- Plan to take a little more time at the store, talking as you go.
- Take a toy for the child to play with while riding in the cart.
- Involve the child in helping you find items on your list.
- Take another adult or older child to help you with shopping or childcare.
- Send your spouse or a friend to the store.
While shopping at the local Krogers here in Little Rock with 2-year-old grandson Max, I enjoyed his company and congratulated myself on his peacefulness. I hunted for the sought items while Max sat peacefully in the cart. It was quite a while before I noticed a trail of frozen peas behind us. Max had burrowed a small hole into the corner of a large plastic bag of frozen peas and was feeding himself. How should I react? Had Max misbehaved? Should he be punished?
I realized that I had not been tuned into Max’s needs. So Max had taken initiative to solve a pressing personal problem: hunger. He had not acted contrary to any laws that he understood. He had acted with resourcefulness and determination. I helped Max enlarge the hole so that he could get peas without spilling them. And I gathered up our trail of peas.
We can be partners with our children in cultivating that beautiful human garden. We can help them grow, learn, and discover joy. We are required not only to plan ahead but also to make adjustments in our own schedules. Nothing great was ever accomplished without effort. The good news is that the child is glad to conspire with us to bring about the finest creation in nature: a good human being.