by Rev. Molly Baskette and Dr. Ellen O’Donnell
When my two children each turned 5 years old, we took them to the same giant football field to learn how to ride a bike.
My son, who had a high pain threshold and a thirst for adventure, didn’t need much encouragement. He fell off his bike a few times, popped back up immediately and got back on. After a dozen dogged tries, he found his balance, wobbling away from us at first slowly, then faster and faster, giving full expression to his inner speed demon. I watched him ride far away without ever glancing back. “That’s not the first time that’s going to happen,” I said to my husband.
My daughter was much more cautious. It took three visits to the football field until she had the confidence to try pedaling without me holding on to the bike. I had to nurse her after every fall, leaning in tenderly, never pressuring her to get up up and try again. When she felt she had perfected her balance, she finally released me. And didn’t go far, physically or metaphorically, until much later in life.
Proverbs 22:6, one of the few parenting stratagems to be found in the Bible, is often translated “Train up a child in the right way, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Or: mis-translated, I should say. There is no one “right way” to raise a child, no one-size-fits-all parenting strategem, Biblical or otherwise. If we have raised more than one child, experience has already told us that each child has a unique personality, strengths and challenges, and needs unique parenting. The science of temperament (or “nature”) confirms this–and demands that we nurture differently depending on what our kid needs.
A more accurate, literal translation of the proverb is: “train the child in their own way, and when older they will not stray.” Not the “right” way–their way, the way that is right for them. Another way I have heard this proverb explained is that each child has a unique “grain,” like the grain of wood. Our job as parents, grandparents, teachers and caregivers is to figure out what their grain is, its unique knots, quirks and beauty, so we don’t work against it and risk wrecking it.
One of the most basic human needs is for autonomy–agency over our own bodies, minds and destinies. Parents and others who foster autonomy support in their children–like God in the Garden of Eden offering a few guidelines to the first humans and then scramming, no snowplow parent She–are much more likely to see their kids become capable, confident adulting humans who know how to navigate an increasingly complex world. This doesn’t mean we don’t offer love and encouragement–and a lot of cuddles if that’s what they want (I refer you back to my daughter!). But it does mean working ourselves out of a job. Kids who don’t have adequate autonomy support can become depressed because they learn not to trust their own instincts or learn how to fail forward. Or they can rebel to find the independence they need, ultimately putting themselves at greater risk.
By teaching them to trust themselves–and listen to God, who often appears as an “inner knowing” (especially when they refuse to listen to us!)–we will help them become ultimately who God intends them to be. The God who understood them from the very beginning and who is with them every step and stumble of the way.
For more parenting wisdom from progressive Christianity and psychology, read Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting, by Rev. Molly Baskette and Dr. Ellen O’Donnell, from which this essay is adapted.