When I lived in New York City for the first time, I had moved the summer after my junior year of college to study acting for a summer. This was going to be the longest I had ever been away from home. I was away from my routine, support, and community. And I was endlessly optimistic and naive. I was sure that this little Alabama girl would have no problem navigating the big city. At the time, I was not a problem-solver, attentive to details, or known to think through the consequences of my happy, floaty little attitude. I’d always experienced being rescued by people around me who were super competent, type A, and loved me. I grow up with what some may call lawnmower parents. I’ll never forget the moment I finally made it to my dorm on the day I arrived.
Little Girl, Big City
I’d navigated the LaGuardia airport for the first time (I only got lost twice!). I hailed my first cab. It wasn’t the yellow city cab, but a creepy one you aren’t supposed to get in because they inflate rates to take advantage of suckers like me! I stepped out on the curb holding all my bags, moments from throwing my red hat in the air (Mary Tyler Moore style). I was having my first resident New Yorker moment. Turning to face my NYU dorm, I took a deep breath. It smelled terrible, but I wasn’t going to lose this romantic moment with the city!
It was locked and my arms were full of bags. There was no way for me to get in. The person working the desk was ignoring me (I’m sure thinking I was a tourist). I felt lost. What do I do? I felt legitimately stuck. Then I saw a nice boy walking through the lobby toward the door. “Thank goodness,” I thought! “He will help me! He’ll hold the door and let me in!”
Wrong. He opened the door, bumped into me, causing me to drop all of my bags in gross brown New York City curb puddles. He told me explicitly how much I was in his way, and the door slammed behind him. Sitting on the curb with my soaked bags and bruised feelings, that was the first moment I realized I was going to have to figure out how to do things for myself to survive the summer.
I think we can all relate to someone in my story. My friends and family all loved me and knew I was a bit of a lovable mess. It was easier to swoop in and save me than to watch me flounder. It has taken a lot of formative, and sometimes tough, experiences to teach me to faithfully persevere through my idol of comfort.
There is a movement in parenting right now called “Lawnmower Parenting.” Lawnmower parents “mow down” all of their children’s bumps, bruises, challenges, and struggles. So before we even dive in, let me say, it is not bad or wrong to want a child to flourish! Your desire is compassionate and human. The short-term wins are hard to resist. The removal of obstacles can avoid hurt feelings and tardy slips at school. It can bring opportunities for your child to do great things.
The long-term issues with lawnmower parents come from a parent’s recurring attempts to smooth over any struggle. This leaves the child unable to solve problems or persevere. But don’t we all know the downside of using only hand sanitizer to clean your hands? Keeping yourself from all germs and bacteria actually hinders your body from learning to fight them (and thus remain healthy). This principle feels counter-intuitive, but it is in our best interest long-term.
Learning from Experience
For followers of Christ, allowing our children to face risks, challenges, and disappointments is not simply a strategy for succeeding in the “real world.” More importantly, it’s an aspect of their discipleship in a fallen world. After all, Scripture promises us that following Jesus will not be easy (2 Tim 3:12), and our kids need to know this.
In an article titled “Highway to the Danger Zone,” Nashville preschool teacher Leigh Graham talks about risky play and methods of building problem-solving skills:
We all want our children to be comfortable, happy and successful. However, Jesus told us our lives would be the exact opposite when he said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.” As parents and teachers, we are called to prepare the children entrusted to us to engage with a world that is fallen and full of dangers, disappointments, and disasters. We are called to instill in them the knowledge that this world is not our true home. How will children be prepared for these inevitable hard things if they are not allowed to experience anything?
Learning from Risk
Allowing a little risk during playtime is a great way to teach kids to problem-solve. So often, kids will climb a ladder and realize they are higher than they imagined. They then freeze. Standing nearby and coaching them to climb back down the ladder rung by rung allows them to problem-solve. They tuck that experience away in order to use it as a teacher for the future when they feel “stuck.” An added bonus in this scenario is that kids love seeing adults trust them.
Learning from Consequences
Natural consequences are another excellent teacher. Of course, we are not looking to manufacture punitive consequences. Even if it is painful to watch your child receive tardies at school, the most effective way to help them learn the importance of managing their time is to allow them to receive the school’s consequences for this infraction. This experience will go so much further because it will serve as a tool in their toolbelt for the future!
A Good Father
As parents and as churches, we want to celebrate successes and show grace in failure for our kids. We have to care for kids where they are now. Also keep a long-term view in helping them grow into healthy, mature disciples! Matthew 7:11 is a great encouragement:
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Our Father in heaven loves our kiddos better than we ever could. He didn’t withhold pain and suffering from his own Son, Jesus Christ, in order to reconcile us and our families to Himself. We can trust Him with our kids!