Today’s post is the last in our multi-part series on Wise Parenting. Each post focuses on one of six principles for parenting wisely: 1) Staying cool, calm and reflective, 2) Framing the problem appropriately, 3) Aiming for the right purpose, 4) Expanding the perspective, 5) Applying the best knowledge and 6) Seeking the right balance.
Balance is central to ancient and contemporary views of wisdom. It is also at the heart of what it means to be a wise parent.
As parents we must constantly make decisions that involve balancing conflicting factors such as firmness with kindness, authority with flexibility, control with independence as well as the needs of different family members. For example, when our son reveals to us in confidence a serious problem that a friend is having, we have to balance loyalty and trust with safety and care. When our 14-year-old daughter wants to go on her first date, we balance our concern for her safety and well-being with our desire for her to develop healthy and meaningful relationships.
To achieve balance, we need to be flexible in our thinking and actions and choose between multiple, often equally appropriate, goals. Below are some of the common balancing acts of being a parent:
Conflicting purposes— The dilemma of equally valid, yet competing, purposes or goals, can create a particularly troublesome parenting challenge. These are situations where there is no single right answer. Perhaps you need to help your child select among two good options—say, playing on the soccer team or pursuing their musical interests. Both are excellent choices, but they provide different opportunities. Or maybe there is a family decision that is good for one particular child but conflicts with what’s best for the family as a whole.
Selflessness vs. selfishness— To be a good parent we often need to put our children’s needs ahead of our own and focus on what’s in their best interests. On the other hand, if we always put our children first and sacrifice our own well-being and happiness for them, we won’t provide a healthy example or be the kind of person or parent our children need us to be.
Limits vs. Independence— In order for our children to be safe and secure, they need us to provide them with rules and structure. However, they also need parents who allow them the freedom to try new things and take new risks. Only by providing children with the kinds of opportunities that challenge them do they grow, learn responsibility and become self-sufficient. In fact, failing to provide opportunities for youth to take calculated, appropriate risks or to be spontaneous, can stifle their development by inhibiting their creativity and personal expression. It can also lead to boredom and rebellion, especially as children become teens and require more freedom to make their own choices.
Objectivity vs. empathy— We usually make wiser parenting decisions when we are not too emotional and can bring some objectivity to the issue (see Parenting Wisdom, Pt. 1: Staying Cool, Calm and Reflective). However, being too detached and objective may not be healthy either. Detachment needs to be balanced with empathy and compassion. If we are too emotional, our ability to think clearly can be short-circuited. On the other hand, if we are too detached and distant, we may fail to truly understand our child’s perspective or needs. And while our response may seem reasonable to us, it may not be effective because we’ve failed to connect with our child and the motives and feelings that underlie his or her behavior. In addition, our lack of compassion may be interpreted as a lack of love and support, which can weaken our teen’s willingness to listen or comply.
Principles for finding the right balance
Finding a wise balance is not easy. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules that apply in every situation, but there are a few principles that can provide some guidance:
- Rely on your values to guide you: Your personal morals and ethics are among the most important factors for facilitating the balancing process. For example, if you believe that kindness trumps total honesty, you might tell your daughter that her new hairdo looks nice even if you are not truly fond of green hair.
- Give priority to those who are most vulnerable and least powerful. While parents shouldn’t always defer to their children, there are times when children’s interests should come first. For example, divorcing parents need to give the interests of the children primary consideration, since they are the most vulnerable and least responsible for the situation. On the other hand, parents also need time to focus on their own needs if they are going to have the personal resources available for their children.
- Allow your child to build independence while you are still available to support their growth and protect their safety. It’s natural and necessary for parents to want to shelter their children from big mistakes and dangerous risks, but children cannot grow up unless they try new things and take chances. This means progressively tilting the balance and allowing teens the independence to take some chances with the understanding that they will occasionally make mistakes.
- Move teens toward increasing self-management and greater responsibility. When children are young, parents are responsible for meeting most of their needs and managing their behavior. But as children get older, our task as parents is to prepare children for managing themselves. Parents can shift the balance towards teens by regularly asking, “Is this something they can do for themselves?”
Parenting involves many subtle balancing acts and can be particularly challenging during the teen years when children are capable of adding their own input to the decision making process. To achieve the right balance we need to be flexible in our thinking and actions and find the best path between multiple, often equally appropriate, goals. Focusing on balance can help parents to make better choices and parent more wisely.
Stephen Small is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. He and his wife, Gay Eastman, have been married for more than 30 years. They are the parents of 3 former teenagers.