As a kid, I loved to wrestle and play baseball. To say I wouldn't care if our son, Landon, played either sport would be a lie — I'd love for him to follow in my footsteps.
This past fall, when he was 4, we signed him up for T-ball. I even coached his team. We had one practice and one game a week. Not bad. Things remained pretty stable in the Straub home.
Related content: Safe House
Then one day he brought a flyer home from preschool advertising "Tiny Tots Wrestling Camp." I was excited. I hadn't started wrestling until seventh grade. If he begins now, he’ll have such a jump-start on the other kids, I thought
Though it ran simultaneously with the T-ball season, we decided to check it out. We learned that joining the club meant two practices a week, plus matches. Though Landon enjoyed it, our family was overextended. We knew we had to say no to wrestling.
I'm glad this happened to us now for two reasons. First, my wife, Christi, and I were able to talk about how we plan to manage our family schedule as our kids grow. Second, it forced me to face the desires I have for my children — and especially my fears.
Margin and emotional safety
I’ve discovered that in parenting, fear is the enemy of margin. Margin is important, because it is the time we allow ourselves for unexpected challenges, conversations and time together as a family.
The more I allow my fears to guide my parenting, the more I'll fill the margin with things to combat my anxieties. That, in turn, makes me less emotionally safe for my child, because being emotionally present requires margin. When every minute is filled, I can't pause to have a meaningful conversation with my child or seize a teachable moment.
Here are three parental fears that can threaten the margin our families need:
1. Fear that my child will experience the same unfulfilled dreams I did.
I'm grateful that Landon's wrestling camp allowed me to face my fears (and disappointments). Honestly, I wasn't a great wrestler. I thought that maybe if my son started earlier, he would stand a better chance at excelling in the sport.
Whether it's making the big leagues, attending Juilliard or getting a coveted college scholarship, we look for opportunities to nudge our kids toward accomplishments we believe they'll need to achieve their dreams. We may even do it in the name of "giving them the opportunities we didn't have."
While there's nothing wrong with accomplishments or the activities, when we steer our children's lives according to our own agendas, the pressure can emotionally debilitate our kids. My child may not need to quit piano lessons or soccer, but if the activity is causing tension in the parent-child relationship or the home, I need to evaluate whether it's doing more harm than good.
As you seek to create healthy margin, start by evaluating every activity based on your child's interest. Be discerning about which activities you add to the schedule.
In addition, take into account your family's life stage. The strain on a family for a 4-year-old who is exhausted from practices, games and tournaments is much different than on a family with a tween who is tired, but genuinely passionate about her interest.
2. Fear that my child will not reach his or her potential.
A few years ago, I met with a young man who was failing school, using drugs recreationally and living a sexually promiscuous life. It didn't take me long to see the pressure this young man was under. His dad was a well-respected local ministry leader, whose expectations for his son were for him to also be a "spiritual giant."
Rather than loving his son for who he was, the father shamed him for who he wasn't. The young man's tearful, heart-wrenching confession is one no child should have to make: "Josh, my dad's expectations for me are so high, I know I'll never be who he wants me to be."
What expectations are you inadvertently placing on your child? Do you have a family business you expect him to take over? Is your child an introvert who loves to read, yet you wish she were a popular social butterfly? We become emotionally unsafe for our kids when the preoccupation with our agenda overwhelms our ability to be present with our kids' emotions, passions and dreams.
To build relationship with your child, join in on an activity that he finds life giving. Perhaps you could audition for community theater with your daughter who loves to act. Maybe you could volunteer with your son's robotics club. Whatever activity your child enjoys, make time to do it together.
3. Fear that I am a bad parent.
Sometimes our agendas as parents aren't about unfulfilled dreams, but a basic fear that we're not good parents. We may put pressure on our kids to do what looks good in the eyes of others, overlooking factors that really matter. But what if activities that seem important are actually causing us to miss out on something more important?
In a recent Harvard study, nearly 80 percent of kids stated that the primary message they receive from their parents is that personal achievement and happiness matter more than care and concern for other people. The kids in the study were also three times more likely to agree with the following statement: "My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I'm a caring community member in class and school."
In many cases, we're unwittingly sending our kids the message that outward success matters more than inward character. I believe this happens because of the unrecognized fear that my child's performance is a reflection of how good I'm doing as a parent. We plan trips, hire tutors and push our kids to perform and look good for others so we have something to prove we're doing a good job.
Creating healthy margin happens when we as parents become the kind of people we want our kids to be. Put more emphasis on serving others with your kids. As you encourage your child to do his best academically, show him that raking the widow's lawn matters more than good grades.
Less doing, more knowing
I don't know if Landon will ever wrestle. But what I learned through our recent experience is that my greatest fear is sacrificing my relationship with my kids by pushing them too hard as a result of my own fears. I want to make time to discover who my children are, what they love to do and the activities that make them feel alive.
Raising our children in the way "they should go," according to the Lord, and not the way we want them to go, matters. And emotionally safe parenting requires ridding ourselves of fear and creating healthy margin.
Dr. Joshua Straub is a counselor, speaker, consultant and author of books such as Safe House.