Families in Transition: Evolving Roles as Our Children Grow

“OMG Mom! Brittany invited me to a swim party, and I can’t find my suit!” I looked up from my coffee to see our 14-year-old in a panic. I could see she was just warming up. In my imagination she was on a pitcher’s mound—there’s the wind-up, there’s the pitch and… deftly I caught the ball before it became a wild throw. “It’s in the hamper.” Crisis averted. Game over.

Sometimes I see parenting as an athletic event. If it were baseball, parents might be the manager, the third base coach, the catcher, or the entire outfield. Sometimes we are all of the above, with mitts on both hands. The various stages of our children’s social-emotional development determine just how many pop flies we catch, what we can throw back and when to let them strike out. Therein lies true athletic finesse.

Infants thru Preschool (birth–5). When our children are small, we focus on making sure their needs are met. We create safe, secure and intellectually stimulating environments where they feel free to explore. We feed them, bathe them, nurture and care for them as they learn to do this for themselves. And when they are overwhelmed physically or emotionally, we scoop them up and soothe them. We act as a safeguard as they begin to understand what they can do, think and feel, in a world that is all about them. This is age-appropriate now, but will not be as beneficial as they evolve.

Elementary School-age children (6−10 years old) experience many developmental shifts. As they evolve, so too must our parenting. The world is no longer about them only, but their roles and responsibilities within it. Greater demands are being placed on their intellectual, cognitive, physical and social-emotional abilities. As much as we’d like to, we cannot do this for them.

But we CAN be at the ready and waiting to advise them from the sideline.

The school-age child will need your advice while navigating classroom behavior expectations, managing schoolwork, and peer interactions. Your guidance (not interception) will be needed to ensure their success. Avoid becoming the “Helicopter Mom” (it’s so easy). We cannot and should not do everything for them. Instead, help them create systems to keep up with their work, learn what is expected of them and, of course, be available to help them through uncharted social situations.

As early as kindergarten, families should be talking about their values and establishing a code of conduct. You cannot be with them all the time, being that voice in their head that will help them to make good choices. That voice could say something as simple as: “We tell the truth”; “We ask for help when we need it”; “We use good judgment; “We are respectful of others”; “We always try to do our best.” These stated values will come in handy as they get older and the stakes are higher. At this stage, we manage, coach and coordinate, but slowly we must turn the game over to them, the players.

The Middle School child is tricky (11-13 years old). As they learn to be more independent, they can appear to be frustrated with their identity. Stuck somewhere between being a child and a young adult, they can appear to be resistant, even rebellious, one moment, then seeking your comfort in the next. Be strong, this stage often causes emotional whiplash. Remember that even though they may lash out using “adult words,” they are still children, and their words do not have adult import. Begin to give them more responsibilities, however nominal. Praise their accomplishments, but be ready to raise the bar. Structure is important at this stage of the game.

Our goal as parents is to raise happy, healthy, productive members of society. If we do our job well, when they grow up and leave us, they will make us proud. It’s true for me! I can’t be sure my husband and I did everything right—I mean let’s face it, we are all doing the best we can. But somehow our children turned out to be pretty awesome people! And I’m sure yours will be, too.