Like most of us, I find the parenting trends-of-the-week catch-phrases a bit tiresome. “Tiger” versus “Elephant” moms. “Free-range” versus “helicopter” parents. Too often they come across as extreme. I’m all for promoting independence, for example, but letting your children walk a mile down a busy highway unaccompanied does sound kind of dangerous to me.
“Lighthouse parenting,” is the latest one. But I have to say this term has won me over. The idea, set forth by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg in his book Raising Kids to Thrive, is that our kids are like ships on the sea, and we’re lighthouses on the shore. Our guidance prevents them from smashing into the rocks and wrecking, but we’re distant helpers. We have to trust that they’re able to sail the waters on their own.
According to Philly.com, Ginsburg, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, asked his own teenager daughters about how he could best protect them, and how he could allow them to best learn on their own. He went on to ask more than 500 kids from across the country the same questions. Overwhelmingly, the teens said that parents should move between trusting them and monitoring them, and balance high expectations with unconditional love. Moms and dads should be watchful and present, but not intrusive. They should deal with their kids in a stable and calm manner, and not be anxious or angry.
“A lighthouse parent understands that sometimes kids need to learn from failure,” Ginsburg told ABC news. He advises parents to let go of perfection, and focus more on the person that the child is becoming, and not their performance in school or sports. “Hold them to the expectation of morality and character you know lies within them.”
Think of the big picture. You want your child to become a functioning adult. They will at times feel, like we all do, sad, angry, frustrated, exhausted. They will make mistakes and fail to do their best. They will experience conflict. We don’t necessarily want to protect them from these challenges, nor do we want to abandon them to deal with them on their own. Instead, we want to help them cope, and give them gentle reminders or advice, so that hopefully they develop their own mechanisms for bouncing back from bad days and getting through tough times.
After picking my son Felix up from kindergarten, he likes nothing more than to hit the schoolyard and play chase. There was a time when I would have trailed him like a shadow, ever ready to jump in when he pulled hair or tried to lay the smack down on some unsuspecting child. Those toddler days are over, thankfully, and while he still has trouble socializing with other kids, he’s slowly but steadily figuring out how to use his words and work things out without resorting to violence.
Nowadays, I pick a spot, and keep a watchful eye while chatting with other parents. I don’t disengage from my fatherly responsibilities, I still take the offensive if I see trouble brewing.
I love imagining myself as a lighthouse in my son’s life. I’m a landmark, a totem of brightness, a symbol of safety. I’m always there when he needs me, and when he doesn’t, I’m out of his way. He can trust me to be a solid, helpful presence, and I trust that he’ll only look for me when he needs me. It’s a lovely image for parenthood, in part because it’s not prescriptive. Each child, like each boat, requires a different amount of help at different times. It’s up to us as parents to decide when to step in and when to hang back.
That’s not easy, of course. Having the responsibility of leading someone through the rough waters of childhood is a big, tough endeavor, but it’s one I’m up for. And when you see your child on his or her own, navigating situations without you? That’s a deeply satisfying reward.More On