Tim Elmore

Artificial Maturity

A Missing Step in Today's Parenting

These six stages may help explain why your young people act the way they do.

Posted Oct 24, 2013

Last month I spent several hours with groups of parents, faculty, coaches and youth workers. It was eye opening, to say the least. Each conversation became a candid disclosure of the fears, the struggles and the preoccupation adults have with today’s youth. I made some observations along the way that may prove helpful to you. It became clear that over the course of a kids’ childhood, parents experience various stages as they lead their child. In each stage, their focus shifts. While the shifts are natural, they can lead to challenges in the relationship. If you are a parent, these may prove to be helpful to your own self-awareness. If you’re a teacher, coach, youth worker or employer, these stages might explain why your young people think and act the way they do.

Six Stages of Parenting

Stage One: Inspecting

This initial stage in the parenting journey begins at day one. Parents examine their new baby, bring her home and begin sizing up her features, traits and apparent strengths. It’s normal for moms and dads to do this. After all, they started the whole thing nine months earlier. Sometimes, however, parents can go nuts, over-analyzing every cough, quirk, twist and turn. Parents must work to remain balanced.

Too much inspecting can push parents to compare and compete with other families, feeling deficits or advantages in their findings. This can lead to unhealthy distraction from the goal of simply loving and raising a child.

Stage Two: Correcting

Stage two is all about parents’ natural bent to remedy any problems that arise in the first year or two. In fact, this stage doesn’t end for years, maybe decades. Out of love and concern for their child, parents can get preoccupied with rectifying all wrongs and improving traits so their child will experience the advantages he or she deserves. Moms and dads just want the best for their kids, right?

Too much correcting can make a young child feel as though they don’t measure up to parent’s standards. They can feel inadequate or disapproved and sink into mild cases of depression or melancholy withdrawal from others.

Stage Three: Protecting

At stage three, the child has usually begun school and parents begin focusing on keeping their child safe and secure. They’re protecting the investment. This is the first time children are apart for significant lengths of time without parents around. While it’s normal for us to safeguard our kids from harm—we can go overboard with helmets, kneepads, safety belts, cell phones and background checks.

Too much protecting can stunt a child’s growth. Kids need to experience appropriate levels of risk and failure in order to mature in a healthy way. Too often we prepare the path for the child instead of the child for the path.

Stage Four: Neglecting

By this stage, the child has entered their “tween” or even teen years and begins to feel like aliens around the house. When parents don’t quite know what to do with their “new” kid, they often back off or back down from offering clear leadership. They fear the unknown. And while they never want to appear “uncool”, failing to be hip to culture can cause parents to neglect asking questions and misunderstand.

Too much neglecting communicates parents aren’t engaged. Kids can misunderstand this as both ignorance and apathy. Funny. It was easy to raise the kids when they were young; now parents hardly recognize them. This stage calls for a new kind of leader.

Stage Five: Suspecting

Parents enter stage five as their kids experience adolescence. Their child may have pushed to enter adolescence at eight, but now their hormones have caught up. Moms and dads get suspicious over the secrecy or strange new habits and styles in their kids. Innocence is replaced by savvy lifestyles and vocabulary. Without a plan, parents and kids divide and separate in this stage of estrangement.

This kind of suspicion can breed distrust. The distrust may be well deserved but communication is key during the teen years. Even over-communication. Parents must create safe environments to converse and explore a new stage of relationship.

Stage Six: Resurrecting

Finally, as the child enters college or shows signs of wanting to separate from mom and dad’s leadership, parents seek to resurrect the relationship, at any cost. They want to stay close. They fear losing touch. The distancing is natural for a youth and the clinging may feel natural for an adult, but parents must navigate this stage with wisdom. We must not compromise values or identity just to keep life happy.

This is a crucial stage for parents to journey successfully. Just like teaching them to ride a bike, parents must blend support and letting go. It’s important to relate to kids in a new way, and still act as a mentor during their young adult years.

So, What is Missing?

No doubt, every adult-child relationship is unique. The stages above, however, are remarkably common, for caring adults in the home, classroom or athletic field. For many, there’s an important ingredient missing from these stages. It is conspicuously absent and it’s absence explains why lots of teens fail to mature into healthy adults.

What have we left out as we help them become adults? In a word:

Expecting

I believe we have under-challenged kids with meaningful work to accomplish. We have overwhelmed them with tests, recitals and practices—and kids report being “stressed out” by these activities. But they are virtual. Adults often don’t give work to students that is relevant to life and could actually improve the world if they rose to the challenge. We just don’t expect much of our kids today. Evidently, we assume they’re incapable. So they fill their day with video games, texts and Facebook. And potential goes untapped. One hundred years ago—seventeen year olds were leading armies, working farms, learning a trade as apprentices. Today—this is rare.

Here’s a thought. Why not talk with your kids and determine what it is they care about in life. Then—offer them a challenge. Whatever their age, expect them to come through and produce something significant. Invite them into a story that matters.

Donald Miller once shared how a friend came to him, grieving that his teenage daughter was dating a guy who was a complete rebel. The kid was a “Goth” whose lifestyle didn’t reflect any of the family’s values and, in fact, was both immoral and illegal. Dad didn’t know what to do. Miller simply asked if his friend had considered that his daughter may simply be choosing a better “story” than the one he was creating as a father in his home.

When the man looked puzzled, Miller continued–-everyone wants to be part of a story that is interesting and compelling. They want their life to solve a problem. This man’s daughter had simply decided her life at home was boring—and her “Goth” boyfriend wasn’t.

This got his friend to think. Over the next few months, he did some research and came up with an idea. Over dinner, this father shared about an orphanage in Mexico that desperately needed help. They needed a building, some supplies and some workers from the U.S. to accomplish their goals. Dad said that he planned to get involved. In a matter of weeks, his kids were intrigued. His son suggested they visit this orphanage in Mexico, and later, his daughter figured out a way to raise money for it online. Over the next year, this family’s story became compelling. Eventually, the teenage daughter approached her father and told him she’d broken up with her boyfriend. She couldn’t believe she was even attracted to him in the first place. Needless to say, dad was elated. Hmmm. I think I know why she didn’t need the guy anymore. I think she found a better story at home.

Here’s to expecting something significant from life and from the kids we lead!

How can you add expecting to the parenting path as you lead the next generation?