In 2012, I spent countless hours with groups of parents, faculty, coaches, and youth workers. It was eye-opening, to say the least. Each conversation became a candid disclosure of the fears, the struggles, and the preoccupation adults have with today’s youth. I made some observations along the way that may prove helpful to you. It became clear that over the course of a kid’s childhood, parents experience various stages as they lead their child. (For that matter, so do teachers). In each stage, their focus shifts. While the shifts are natural, they can lead to challenges in the relationship. What’s more, they can lead to mistakes. If you are a parent, recognizing the stages may prove to be helpful to your own self-awareness. If you’re a teacher, coach, youth worker, or employer, these stages might explain why your young people think and act the way they do.
STAGE 1: INSPECTING
This initial stage in our parenting journey begins at day one. We examine our new baby, bring her home and begin sizing up her features, traits, and apparent strengths. It’s normal for moms and dads to do this. After all, they started the whole thing nine months earlier. Sometimes, however, parents can go nuts, over-analyzing every cough, quirk, twist, and turn. Parents must work to remain balanced.
Too much inspecting can push parents to compare and compete with other families, feeling deficits or advantages in their findings. Is their kid ahead or behind? This can lead to unhealthy distraction from the goal of simply loving and raising a child.
STAGE 2: CORRECTING
Stage two is about our bent to remedy any problems that arise in the first year or two. In fact, this stage doesn’t end for years, maybe decades. Out of love and concern for their child, parents can get preoccupied with rectifying all wrongs and improving deficient qualities so their child will experience the advantages he or she deserves. This can lead to obsessive behavior. Moms and dads just want the best for their kids, right?
Too much correcting can make a young child feel as though they don’t measure up to parent’s standards. They can feel inadequate, unloved, or even disapproved of, causing them to sink into mild cases of depression or melancholy withdrawal from others.
STAGE 3: PROTECTING
At stage three, the child has usually begun school and parents begin focusing on keeping their child safe and secure. They’re protecting the investment. This is the first time children are away for significant lengths of time without parents around. While it’s normal for us to safeguard our kids from harm, we can go overboard with helmets, knee pads, safety belts, cell phones, and background checks.
Too much protecting can stunt a child’s growth. Kids need to experience appropriate levels of risk and failure in order to mature in a healthy way. Too often we prepare the path for the child instead of the child for the path.
STAGE 4: NEGLECTING
By this stage, the child has entered their “tween” or even teen years and begins to feel like an alien around the house. When parents don’t quite know what to do with their “new” kid, they often back off or back down from offering clear leadership. We fear the unknown. And while we don’t ever want to appear “uncool,” being “hip” to culture can cause parents to neglect asking questions that they need to be asking.
Too much neglect communicates that we aren’t engaged. Kids can misunderstand and confuse our lack of engagement for both ignorance and apathy. Funny – it was easy to raise these kids when they were young; now we hardly recognize them. This stage calls for a new kind of leader.
STAGE 5: SUSPECTING
Parents enter stage five as their kids experience adolescence. Their child may have pushed to enter adolescence at eight years old, but now their hormones have caught up. Moms and dads get suspicious over the secrecy or strange new habits and styles in their kids. Innocence is replaced by savvy lifestyles and vocabulary. Without a plan, parents and kids divide and separate in this stage of estrangement.
This kind of suspicion can breed distrust. The distrust may be well-deserved, but communication is key during the teen years—even over-communication. Parents must create safe environments to converse and explore a new stage of relationship.
STAGE 6: RESURRECTING
Finally, as the child enters college or shows signs of wanting to separate from mom and dad’s leadership, parents seek to resurrect the relationship at any cost. They want to stay close. They fear losing touch. The distancing is natural for a youth and the clinging may feel natural for an adult, but parents must navigate this stage with wisdom. We must not compromise values or identity just to keep life happy.
This is a crucial stage for parents to journey through successfully. Just like teaching them to ride a bike, we must blend support with letting go. It’s important to relate to kids in a new way, and still act as a mentor during their young adult years.
SO, WHAT’S MISSING?
No doubt, every adult-child relationship is unique. The stages above, however, are remarkably common for caring adults in the home, classroom, or athletic field. For many, there’s an important ingredient missing from these stages. It is conspicuously absent and its absence explains why lots of teens fail to mature into healthy adults.
What have we left out as we help them mature? After years of inspecting, correcting, protecting, and the like, the natural stage that should follow is: expecting.
I believe we have under-challenged kids with meaningful work to accomplish. We have overwhelmed them with tests, recitals, and practices—and kids report being “stressed out” by these activities. But they are essentially virtual activities. Adults often don’t give significant work to students—work that is relevant to life and could actually improve the world if they rose to the challenge. We just don’t have many expectations of our kids today. Evidently, we assume they’re incapable. Instead of rising to our expectations, they drop their heads down to send texts, play video games, scan popular YouTube channels, and check their Facebook feed. Their potential goes untapped. One hundred years ago, seventeen-year-olds were leading armies, working on the farm, and learning a trade as apprentices. Kids could hardly wait to enter the world of adult responsibility. Today, that attitude is rare.
Here’s a thought: why not talk with your kids and determine what it is they care about in life? Then, offer them a challenge. Whatever their age, expect them to come through and produce something significant. Give them the opportunity to meet great expectations — or, better yet, to build great expectations of their own. Invite them into a story that matters.
Author Donald Miller once shared how a friend came to him, grieving that his teenage daughter was dating a guy who was a complete rebel. The kid had a lifestyle that didn’t reflect any of the family’s values and, in fact, was both immoral and illegal. Dad didn’t know what to do. Miller simply asked if his friend had considered that his daughter was simply choosing a better “story” than the one he was creating as a father in his home.
When the man looked puzzled, Miller continued. Everyone wants to be part of a story that is interesting and compelling. They want their life to solve a problem. This man’s daughter had simply decided her life at home was boring—and her boyfriend wasn’t.
This got his friend to think in new ways. Over the next few months, he did some research and came up with an idea. Over dinner, this father shared about an orphanage in Mexico that desperately needed help. They needed a building, some supplies, and some workers from the U.S. to accomplish their goals. Dad said that he planned to get involved. In a matter of weeks, his kids were intrigued. His son suggested they visit this orphanage in Mexico, and later, his daughter figured out a way to raise money for it online. Over the next year, this family’s story became compelling. Eventually, the teenage daughter approached her father and told him she’d broken up with her boyfriend. She said she couldn’t believe she was even attracted to him in the first place. Needless to say, her dad was elated.
I think I know why she didn’t need the guy anymore: she found a better story at home.
Here’s to expectations! Expect something significant from life and from our kids. Here’s to creating stories that pull the very best out of them. Even more, here’s to avoiding the mistakes and pitfalls that prevent them from reaching their potential.
Wondering how else you can better connect with the next generation?
It helps when you know how to speak their language – how they’re thinking – what they value. Tim Elmore is the country’s leading expert in the emerging generation, and his book A New Kind of Diversity contains everything you need to know about connecting with – and influencing – the young leaders in your life. Pick up a copy here today.