Sunday, August 23, 2009

Kinder-gardening: The Gentle Art of Raising Adults. part 4

When our children reached 12 years old it was time to transplant the seedlings into the garden. Our 12 year olds were never teenagers to us – they were young (very young!) adults. Between the ages of 12 and 18 we gave our growing adults more and more responsibilities and privileges as they were ready for them. Because of the work we had done earlier, our 12 year olds were confident in most situations, whether it was a night of babysitting or a week at scout camp.

During these years between 12 and 15, we tried hard to instill into our growing adults what it meant to be a mature adult: a personal relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ, a servant’s heart, a willingness to take responsibility for their own actions, a knowledge that at times they may be asked to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. It was a growing experience for ourselves as parents also as we tried to teach these values by example – we couldn’t teach our young people to do anything that we weren’t willing and able to do ourselves.

Our 12 to 15 year olds didn’t learn these values only by our example, though. They also had the benefit of observing others – both real people and fictional characters became role models. One of the benefits of carefully selecting the adults our children would spend time with at church, in the neighborhood and in organizations like scouts was that they spent time with other adults that were worthy role models. These were people who were living the values we were trying to instill in our young people, and we are always grateful to them for the influence they’ve had on our family’s lives! We also held up fictional heroes for our children – heroes are larger than life and inspire a child or adult to attempt great things. Reading good literature does more than make an impressive entry on a college transcript. Reading good literature enlarges a life.

Each learning experience built on the next, until by around 15 years old those growing adults were able to take on adult responsibilities in controlled circumstances. This is the age when our children got their first jobs, went on mission trips, and organized social times with their friends. Our oldest son was part of a trip to New York City and enjoyed youth group retreats; our daughter went on mission trips to Appalachia and volunteered at our local public library; our younger boys are involved in scouting activities that have them involved in camping and service projects and regularly have a group of their friends over to our house on a Saturday afternoon to play games.

Dating, which is a huge time and energy investment for most people this age, became a non-issue in our family. We encourage our young people to involve their friends in group activities and to put off one-on-one dating until at least college. They appreciate how they are able to avoid the “drama” of broken hearts and broken relationships at this age, and we are encouraged as we see them waiting until they are older to give their hearts away.

But at the same time that our young people are establishing themselves in the world, we are all too aware that they are newly-transplanted seedlings facing their first experiences in the garden. Just like a gardener keeps a careful eye on the weather, we keep a careful eye on our young people’s environments. It not only matters that they are working, but where they are working, and with whom. It not only matters that they participate in our church’s youth group, but who the leaders are and what they are teaching. It not only matters that they welcome their friends into our home, but what they are planning to do and how they are organizing the event. Just like a gardener keeps a cover handy when frost threatens, we keep ourselves available with help and advice – and celebrated each time we realize we are needed less.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Kinder-gardening: The Gentle Art of Raising Adults. part 3

Our young plant is thriving in the greenhouse. The stem is getting longer and stronger, second and third pairs of leaves are growing: the plant seems ready to be set out in the garden. But there is also important work going on at this point in both our plant’s life and our children’s lives that is hard to see – they are growing roots. I don’t know how many times I’ve taken a young seedling out to the garden to plant it only to find that even though the stems and leaves look mature, the plant has a weak root system. It just needed more time before transplanting.

Our children were doing important work between the ages of 7 and 11 – developing strong roots. They were in the process of establishing a firm base – a solid confidence that home was secure. They identified themselves as part of our family.

Also, if you have observed children, then you know that at about 7 years of age there is a turning point in the child’s life. Part of it is physical – the round chubbiness and straight baby teeth of the preschooler are replaced by growing gangly limbs and missing teeth – but a big part is also emotional. The growing child starts to separate from the parents in a way that a toddler and preschooler never would. The 7 year old is becoming an individual.

I know it sounds like I just contradicted myself – read through those last paragraphs again. The growing child starts to separate from the parents at the same time that they are establishing a firm base? There’s a line from a poem by John Donne – “Thy firmness makes my circle just”. What he’s talking about is a compass, the kind used to draw circles. John Donne was saying that his wife was the “fixed foot” – the foot that establishes the center of the circle. He was the other foot, the foot that must “obliquely run” – but no matter how far he went, his wife was the fixed center to his circle. I don’t want to get too far from my greenhouse illustration, but I think it’s important at this point to see that this is one of our roles as parents of growing adults – we are that firm, fixed foot of the compass that brings our children back to the center, that makes their circle just (or true, or perfectly circular).

So the strong roots make the separation possible and almost unnoticeable. It is the secure child that can take risks. Consequently, around 7 years old we started the serious hardening off work at the same time that we reassured them that the fixed foot of the compass would not move.

It was time to put our seedlings in a larger pot – but still under the protection of the greenhouse. In controlled circumstances we put our children into the larger world, the same way you put young seedlings out on a sunny day. They would have a sleep over at a friend’s house or go on an outing to the zoo with the neighbor family.

Between the ages of 7 and 11 we would expose our children to the world outside our home in increasingly large doses. The activities we allowed our children to participate in were carefully chosen – even at the ripe age of 11 years old when our children went on their first week long adventure without us (usually camp), we knew who they were going with, what they would be doing and who was going to be responsible for them.

As they were exposed to the outside world, our young plants were no longer in that strictly controlled environment that I wrote about in my last posting. If you leave a young plant in those conditions for too long you’ll have a weak, sickly plant. A young plant needs to be exposed to adverse conditions to help it grow stronger – but that exposure is carefully controlled.

During this hardening off time they experienced life in different families and different environments, and learned that different places have different rules. Sometimes they would encounter things that we didn’t anticipate, or things that we wish they had never seen, but those experiences helped them see the differences between our family and others. They also learned that they were expected to live by our family’s rules no matter where they were. Home was still the greenhouse – but they were getting ready for the garden.