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Parenting Paradigm Shifts


Originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, 2006

At our best, we are dynamic beings, growing emotionally, intellectually and physically in cataclysmic bursts that can shake us to our very core. The very young and the very adolescent epitomize this internal seismic shifting through temper tantrums, risk taking, back talking, life seizing, adventure seeking actions and behavior that can leave those of us in the Middle Ages adrift and motion sick in a sea of angst.

At our worst, we are entrenched in the static habits and routines of our Middle Ages. We come to resist change like dental visits, and suffer the consequences of that reluctance like tooth decay, leaving our children shaking their heads with amazement at our unhealthy, old fashioned ways in a new fashioned world.

I suspect that’s because paradigm shifts — real, life altering, enduring changes of heart, the kind that become harder to make after age 20 — can be painful.

I know this from personal experiences like childbirth, kidney stones, lay-offs and walking into walls while in the midst of a sudden cognizance: Change, especially personal change, can hurt, both physically and emotionally.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to do. Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes so hard to see our children grow and change, and to learn to change with them. But to fail to grow and change with our families is to grow apart and distant; to fail to make the necessary paradigm shifts as we grow older, is to simply grow old.

When we first moved to our new home in a rural part of Tampa, I determined what I thought was the most efficient drive along back country roads to our church. After I’d been driving that route once or twice a week for about a year, a church friend showed me the route he took. It looked longer to me, and his argument that it was, indeed, shorter, didn’t persuade me, even after I tried it a couple of times. It just seemed wrong. More important, it wasn’t the way I always drove.

So for nearly another year, I continued to drive my old route. Then one day, on a lark, I tried my friend’s directions again and – lo and behold! – the drive was suddenly and quite clearly shorter, more direct and more efficient. I checked the mileage. It was, in fact, about a mile shorter.

I was baffled. Why had I resisted what was clearly a better choice for so long? Why couldn’t I see the truth of the matter? The drive was even prettier than the one I’d been taking, which I had for so long considered the superior view, as well as the better route. I felt embarrassed by my stubbornness.

I was reminded of that experience recently while chatting with my now older teenage daughters. I said something transparently obvious and they laughed indulgently. I felt my status as immutable Motherhead teeter, as I’ve felt it wobble precariously on more than one occasion in recent months. I was still speaking like the mother of young girls, but now to young women who found me more amusing than instructive or inspiring. I was driving an old route when a new one was clearly in order.

And so I’ve begun, slowly, trying new paths of communication, and turning the wheel of leadership and decision making over to them more often. I’m not so much in charge anymore, as just along for the ride, identifying the occasional danger or point of interest as I would to anyone for whom I care.

It’s a little scary sometimes. They drive their lives fast and get distracted easily. But they also see things I never would have noticed when I was in the driver’s seat, and if I’m open to their ideas and insights, they share their visions with me and I grow in new ways.

Some parents don’t let go, and don’t make the paradigm shift from parenting young children, to guiding young adults. The most successful parents do make that shift, however painful it might be, and come out on the other side of it with a new and rewarding relationship with their growing and grown children.

It’s hard to respect someone who treats you like a child when you’re long past being one. But it’s a rich and mutually inspiring parent and child experience to have a mature relationship with someone who will listen to your ideas and insights, who knows you will listen and value her as the complete person you helped her become, and who is confident in your ability to embrace change in ways that help both of you grow.

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