By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
My wife Jane and I recently returned from a week in the St. Louis area where we watched six of our grandchildren participate in various sports. It’s a thrill to see them take part, and clearly it’s special for them when Grandma and Grandpa drive five hours to watch them perform.
There’s more than a little deja vu in this for us since all five of our children participated in sports at some point in their academic careers.
In all cases, I have taken special joy in photographing them – using the experience I gained as a newspaper photographer and owner of a photo business years ago, as well as the incredible new technology found in top grade digital cameras and lenses.
They seem to like being photographed as much as I like to do it. So that’s a win-win in the transgenerational department.
After almost 50 years of getting “bleacher butt” watching our kids and grandkids compete, I’m convinced that the benefits far outweigh the sacrifices for kids and parents alike. But I have also come to appreciate some of the voices that warn about the problems that can arise when our kids compete at something.
It’s true that some parents seem to be reliving their own school day competitions – driving their kids to do as well as they did (or remember doing) or to do much better than they did (but wish they had done).
It’s also true that parents can come away from losses so emotionally devastated that they’re oblivious to their children’s own heartbreak – and their need for support and encouragement. I don’t think anyone wants to be a useless parent, but I’ve seen it happen way too many times.
A huge key to effective parenting is giving our children what they really need, not just everything they want.
In the main today in the First World, that means we can’t just throw money, technology and car keys at our kids in the hope that this will solve their very pressing problems of growing up.
We need to listen. We need to draw them out. We need to help them process things – not with a “third degree” cross exam but with questions asked slowly and gently. We need to use nonverbals. You know, hugs and smiles and stuff like that.
We need to both tell them we love them and show them we love them. Listening can say and show a lot.
But always our motivation has to be what does my child really need in this moment?
I recall a time when our oldest son, a serious student of and participant in basketball, had perhaps his worst game ever. It came at a holiday tournament, when we had ample family and friends in the stands. He picked up two quick fouls, looking like a klutz in the process. He gave up points. He missed his own shots. I think he eventually fouled out.
After the game he came through the door in a furor, which we expected. I reached out to embrace him and encourage him. He wasn’t having any of it.
“Look,” he said, “if my pants had fallen down at the 10-second line I wouldn’t have been any more embarrassed than I was out there today. I just want to be alone for a while.” He headed to his room in the basement.
Although I wanted to fix his pain, the best thing to do at that moment seemed to be what he wanted – a little time alone (although I wouldn’t have let him brood for more than an hour or so).
In a half hour he rejoined the crowd, exchanged pleasantries and soon asked if he could go out with some friends.
“How ya doing?” I asked as casually as I could. “I'm doing good,” he said with a reassuring nod of his head. I told him to have fun and not be too late. He thanked me and went out the door.
There are times when a parent has to intervene. There are times when a parent has to confront and challenge his or her child. There are times when a parent has to insist that their child “talk it out.” There are times when a parent has to coach or even preach. There are times when a parent has to firmly issue orders.
And there are times when a parent has to just step back and let their child work things out on their own.
The key is to discerning what the child really needs. Sometimes what they need is what they want. Other times it’s not that simple. Be assured that as a parent you will make mistakes. Every one of us does.
But it helps both to stay in track and get back there quickly if we focus on the fact that the kid must come first – that is, the kid’s genuine long-term healthy development and welfare has to come first. This is not about me as a parent. It is never about me.
So what of the parent’s needs? I’m sure you can guess. A parent needs, above all, to be a good parent. And that means putting their own wants, their own emotions, on the back burner.
Enjoy the kids. Enjoy the seasons. Be there for them in the way they need you, especially when they need you most. Listen a lot. Love always.
Serve! Enjoy! And thank God for the privilege.
You will never have more important work to do.