Parents and Playgrounds
Bruce G. Epperly
When our son was small, the father of his best friend and I took the boys to the school playground every evening to ride their Hot Wheels three wheelers and play on the Jungle Gyms. My adult companion and I often engaged in animated conversations about literature and philosophy, but I always kept an eye on the boys. My task was to stay out of the way of their games and even some of their conflicts, to them let tumble and fall, but always be on the alert for real danger and run to the rescue if need be! The proof of my balance of distance and safekeeping is that both boys are still alive, married, and great friends.
Watching my infant grandson reminds me that good parenting involves intimacy and distance, order and chaos, safety and appropriate risk, immediacy and waiting an extra moment to intervene or respond to a cry. We parents feel our children’s pain, but good parenting involves appropriate distance so that children can learn self-reliance, patience, and problem-solving. Just recently my own son and his wife – and the grandparents, to a lesser extent – experienced this balance of intimacy and distance as they made the transition from their child sleeping in a co-bed in their room to him going to sleep in his own room. We all had to resist going in for a few moments to allow him to learn to soothe himself to sleep. (Of course, we did not leave him alone with his tears for too long!) This was tough since every cry broke our hearts.
Process theology sees life as a dynamic balance of order and novelty, and safety and risk. Disorder and pain are inevitable in a world in which there are many agents, each with her or his agenda. Not even God can control the outcome of every situation. As a matter of fact, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the parent of modern process thought, says that God’s vision, God’s action in any given situation, is the “best for that impasse.” Good parenting involves that right blend of order and predictability and innovation and surprise. In the evolving parent-child relationship, parents optimally encourage creativity and freedom appropriate to the child’s age. This isn’t always easy for either parent or child.
I recall the experience of encouraging our son to walk to school. Although most of the time, I drove him the circuitous route to his elementary school, I decided at one point that he should walk part way. We lived on a busy street so I always crossed the street with him. At the right time, we decided to experiment with walking to school. Over the course of a week, I gradually extended the circle of his freedom and agency – the first day, he just walked 50 feet by himself; the second day, 100 feet; the third day, the length of a football field. By the end of the week, he could walk the block and a half to school. Now, throughout this time, I always remained at the top of the hill watching him all the way to the school yard, always ready to sprint down the hill if I saw the slightest hint of danger. My son and I coined a phrase “I’ll watch you home” to describe any occasion where he was “on his own,” but I was there to provide the safety net, reassurance, or a virtual playground within which he could feel secure.
Parenting, like divinity, is about playgrounds and balancing safety, innovation, and risk. We hear a lot about “helicopter parents,” who even try to shape their children’s lives and insure their success in college. Such hyper-vigilance eventually makes a prison out of a playground, and prevents children from soaring on their own. Now, I belong to the “careful parents” and “careful grandparents” union! I am an intimate parent who still is involved at times as a coach and mentor, occasionally, an alternative voice in my own son’s life. (Of course, now that he is an adult, he gives me plenty of advice, too! And, he began to advise me on my clothes and public behavior nearly twenty years ago!) But, I realize that he is the ultimate decision maker now. I need to let go of being too good an advisor. My influence is in his bones and conscience, in his values and aspirations. My words are consultative, whether they relate to work or parenting, and given with a dash of humility since he now knows things and has expertise in some areas beyond my own. He is developing his own parenting style and his own way of navigating adult relationships; something we are always learning.
From a process perspective, there are many good ways of parenting, and good parenting is always situational and grounded in the relationship of the child’s experience and the parent’s gifts. Still, in the spirit of an evolving universe, good parenting – imitating the divine – is about expanding freedom and creativity and encouraging imagination and its embodiment in daily life. It is about nurturing a child’s own experience and uniqueness, mirroring God’s own movements in her or his life. It is about the intimacy of care and mentoring, and privacy of self-creation and growth. Imagine “all the places you’ll go.”
Today’s Spiritual Practice: Take some time to be still resting in the safety of the Universe. After breathing in a sense of peace, visualize your child or grandchild (or the child you are expecting). Imagine them as healthy, whole, and safe. Now, visualize them as growing in ability, resourcefulness, and courage. See them expand their circle of freedom. Imagine ways that you can encourage their freedom and creativity, while preserving their safety.
Today’s Affirmation: I nurture the right balance of safety and freedom in my child’s life.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He may be reached for questions and engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org.