Growing up is riddled with ambivalence. On the one hand your child wants to demonstrate what a "big boy" he is, capable of making his own decisions and directing his own life. On the other, he very often wants to curl up in your arms and be the little, totally dependent infant he was -- and not so very long ago.
And parenting, too, is characterized by these same ambivalent swings. There's a part of us that wants our children to be fully autonomous, self-supporting individuals -- the ultimate goal of all our efforts. But often equally strong is the impulse to hold on and savor for as long as possible her complete dependence on our care and nurturing. As we witness them grow up and incrementally become their own independent persons, each day is understandably met with both celebration and a sense of loss.
Confronting and managing these completely natural feelings of ambivalence, both in our child and in ourselves, is where the true art of parenting and child-rearing comes to play. Sometimes we need to let go; and sometimes we need to hold on. Just as your child is daily testing the limits of his own autonomy, we as parents and caregivers daily confront our own limits. The good news is that there is no one right way, no prescription, no step-by-step parenting manual to follow. What you have instead is your own instinct as a parent, and an intimate knowledge of your child's unique personality and history; and, of course, a deep love for the task at hand. If she insists on wearing her pink tutu and cowgirl jacket to the grocery store is it really worth asserting your will and dampening her independent spirit? On the other hand, it may make more sense for other occasions (like for church or for preschool) to lay out two or three options of appropriate outfits and let her make the ultimate choice.
It's also important to remember that as we meander through these countless daily parenting choices lots of mistakes will be made. In fact, the mistakes are often the best opportunities for learning and discovery, for both child and parent. Each child (as each parent) brings to the process her own personality and style, and her own tolerance for risk taking and adventure. With a child who tends to temperamentally push the developmental envelope and who always wants to go further and faster, it becomes necessary to more carefully set the boundaries and establish the limits. For the cautious child whose nature is to be more averse to risk and change, what is often required is gentle nudging and lots or reassurance that he can move into these new experiences, and gradually discover that he is capable of mastering this new set of challenges.
If parenting were a science and lent itself to clear formulas and prescriptions all of these decisions would be easy to make. But instead parenting is a true art, and art requires presence, mindfulness and experimentation. In parenting as in art we embrace the task with a sense of direction, but no clear picture of the destination or outcome. And just like with growing up itself, on some days it is enough to just show up -- with an open mind and a willingness to learn, to discover and, perhaps most important, to have fun with the process together.
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