I was a young 22 year old second year teacher when I was first asked to be the founding principal of KingsWay School in Orewa. I began in that role a year later, beginning a course of events that has significantly shaped my life. At the time, I had very little belief in myself and my ability to do the job well, but those around me believed in me enough to put their young 5-7 year old children in my care. They clearly had high expectations but they shaped a conversation of hope and faith, and, yes, they loved me. There were several times in which I felt entirely overwhelmed and burst into tears to one of the trustees over the phone. The most memorably answer was, “Helen, if you feel you don’t want to do it, you are free to go, but we believe that you can and think that you are doing a good job.” Some of those original trustees are still involved in Christian education today, but at that point most of these governors were in their 20s and 30s themselves! These people shaped my life.
Before I started KingsWay, I was inspired by a beautifully liberating book entitled “For the Children’s Sake” by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay. The concept of trying to shape an environment in which children can learn to choose well instead of merely obeying began to be birthed in me. It is easier to either let children do whatever they want and then blast them for their actions or to restrict their worlds so they never face temptation than it is to provide an environment in which there are both boundaries and freedom and trust.
As I have raised five children, now aged between mid-teens and mid-twenties, I have also seen the shaping power of trust, along with high expectations for growth. I realised fairly early on that fear-based parenting results in parents restricting their children and often children rebelling against their parents. As parents, particularly with our first children, we often feel that our own identity and worth as a person is reflected in our children, and we fear that any bad behaviour will reflect poorly on us, or that our children will turn out to be criminals! It seems to me that fear is one of the biggest poisons in good parenting. Fear leads only to over-reaction and control. We have to get over ourselves and realise that this child is their own person making their own choices, and that this is one simple choice out of many in a learning process! We cannot and should not control many of their choices. Our job is not to control, but rather to teach and inspire and equip them to use their power for their own good and for the good of others.
It is only when we see the long stony road of ‘discipleship’ of our children that we can respond with wisdom when our children trip over a pebble, or worse throw stones at their peers. The end of the story is not yet written and every problem is simply a learning step on the way to maturity. I think perhaps that this is why Jesus was so happy to walk with tax collectors and prostitutes. He saw their authenticity and their potential. He was not worrying about how people viewed those friendships. He fully accepted them in their present while believing in a hope-filled future.
Some phrases that helped shape a conversation of trust and developing maturity in my children include:
“We are nearly at Granny’s house. When we get there, I want you to look Granny in the eye and say “Hi Granny!” and then talk with her for a few minutes before you go off to play. Some children don’t know how to do that and they only think about themselves. (Or I guess you might be tempted to push past Granny and run to the toy box.) But I will be so pleased with you if I see you remembering to talk to Granny because I will know you are really growing up when I see you are showing care for other people not just yourself!”
- I was expressing my positive expectation beforehand to give the child an opportunity to know how to succeed.
- I was giving the exact words they could use if they didn’t know what to say.
- I was giving them an awareness of the alternative behaviour and reason for it so they could see the element of comparison and choice.
- I was giving them a clear indication that they would be able to make me feel so happy if they made a simple good choice so that they almost could feel my happiness even at the thought of them choosing well.
- I was linking good choices with growing up. Everyone wants to be growing up!
- I was reminding them of the big picture reason for my expectation - that we want to love better.
After this discussion, I would trust them and then wink at them or whisper to them when they had succeeded and watch their hearts swell with pride and happiness. Alternatively, I would express disappointment - so much more powerful than anger - and maybe give a consequence sometimes framed by my disappointment, with a repetition of the expectation, with hope, for next time.
“I am so disappointed that you made that choice. I was thinking of taking you to the playground on the way home, but I am too disappointed to do that now. What a shame! Oh well, next time I think you will remember!”
This approach, starting with small things, has extended through to discussions with young teenagers about attending parties where alcohol or drugs were served to minors.
“Yes, you can go to the party at which there is alcohol. You know my expectations about not drinking alcohol at your age, and I think I can trust you. Some of your friends will probably be drinking. I guess you might be tempted to drink as well. But I trust you and I will be pleased with you if I find you making good choices. I will be able to trust you more if you can demonstrate trustworthiness in this.”
This approach to parenting, over and over again in multiple contexts with graduated levels of responsibility has meant that as they have grown my children have had plenty of freedom, that I have a high level of trust in them, that we have a great relationship and can talk about most things, and that, while they still do some dumb things, I see young adults who are generally using their freedom for good and are feeling good about themselves.
Fear-based parenting closes worlds down. But starting with small ways of developing trust and responsibility with strong accountability and lots of love reaps the rewards we all long for!