Parent from love, not Fear

There are many great sayings that have helped me maintain perspective in my efforts to raise children…

…no use crying over spilled milk (or spilled anything)

…give it to God and go to sleep!

…it’s about the process, not the product.

…Mom of boys: less drama, but harder to keep alive

These mantras ground me and remind me to embrace this time with my children.

Cameron and I had the opportunity to attend a parenting conference this past weekend. It was a wonderful opportunity to focus on the big picture perspective: to raise our children to be capable adults that have a strong mental, social and spiritual well-being who will hopefully decide to follow God. I even learned a new phrase to add to my collection: practice makes progress!

Cameron and I found our way to the conference because one of the authors of “Wild Things: the Art of Nurturing Boys” was speaking at the event with his coworker and we absolutely loved his book! They are a team of counselors in Tennessee who write about raising children from a Christian perspective. The “Wild Things” book focuses on boys development and helped us so much by defining unique struggles and avenues to encourage our boys as they grow into adulthood. We have been sharing it with parents of boys non-stop!

While I am chewing on many of the great ideas and concepts from the seminars, both their book “Intentional Parenting” and part of their in-person lesson included this idea: we need to parent from love instead of fear. What does “parenting from fear” look like? It looks like making choices in parenting based on your fears for them instead of what you know is best for them.

I, like so many moms I know, struggle with anxiety. If I look at many of the decisions I make with my children, I see ways my anxiety is winning and fear determines my choices. Am I interested in home schooling to protect them from the world or because I feel like that will help them thrive? Or in less significant ways, do I say no to finger painting because of my fear of the mess? Am I expecting perfection in them like I often do with myself?

After my 1st son was born, my anxiety spiked in a way I was not at all expecting. I had to overcome significant postpartum anxiety and would beat myself up for thinking so irrationally. I would have visions of tripping on the sidewalk (or anywhere) and falling while holding my son and once broke down crying from fear of driving in a big rainstorm with my son in the back seat. Nightmares and restlessness kept me from sleeping for the first few months…even with a baby who slept over 7 hours at night. Most of the time, the battle was in my mind…I attempted to keep the struggles hidden inside and overpower them.

Most of the time, I like to think that I’m managing my anxiety well. I work diligently to “talk myself down” from irrational fears of child abduction, abuse, or serious injury. I actually specifically remember a time period when my son was about 2 years old where I was so consumed with worry about him being sexually abused-a concern that isn’t gone, mind you. I would try to teach him he could say no to an adult and that he didn’t have to do something that made him uncomfortable…which for a 2 year old means–anything that goes against what I want. I was inadvertently teaching him that adults didn’t have authority and he didn’t have to listen to them, or even me. It came from a fear that an adult would abuse that authority and ask my son to do something wrong. I had to accept that just because some people are evil with children (even their own) didn’t mean that the measures I was taking were ultimately helpful to him. There is a place for teaching a child appropriate boundaries for their body and that they don’t have to be affectionate with other people when they don’t want to, which I still emphasize, but I had taken it too far (and at too young of an age) because of my fear.

Anxiety also affected aspects of parenting that didn’t seem based in fear. Given my dislike of disorder and mess, I push myself to find ways to be messy outside or in a space I can live with. Because I struggle with perfectionism, I remind myself that it’s about the process and that I can’t possibly make everything turn out exactly right. My actions don’t always show my anxiety, but my mind turns over scenario after scenario that I seek to calm through reasoning and logical internal lecturing.

Anxiety has less power over me now than it did in those earlier days. But my mind still turns and worries and dwells on what-if scenarios far more than I’d like. It was almost easier to spot the fear back then. Today, my struggles look more like this:

…My son (age 3) knows that he needs to answer loudly with “Here I am!” when I ask where he is if I can’t see him, trying to stay calm until hearing a response.

…It stretches me far outside my comfort zone to have him out of my sight when we are out.

…I have very few people with whom I am comfortable enough to watch my children when I’m not there. I can’t handle the idea of sifting through to find someone to watch our kids.

…I don’t like to do anything messy in the house and often cringe even when it’s outside.

…I get lost and distracted in worries from the past and about what might happen in the future.
…I beat myself up for any small mistake I make in parenting and hold myself to an impossibly high standard.

…I want everything to be perfect and go perfectly and I stress out when things don’t meet my expectations.

Then I worry about how my worrying affects my children…ironic isn’t it? I have already found my son exhibiting signs that he is picking up my anxiety. I hear comments like, “I think I would feel better if we picked up this mess,” or the more problematic statement that “I want you to help me color the truck because I can’t do it well.” I’m not gonna lie, the first statement made me a little happy…I mean he wants to clean up! But the second statement woke me up. Whether he felt that way because of his own pre-disposition or learned it from me, I realized I need to help him to deal with perfectionism.

A big part of my goal when it comes to raising children is to get out of my own way and let them be…well, free to be children! When I allow anxiety to drive me, my fear is realized…my parenting suffers when anxiety leads. In those moments, I’m parenting from fear.

God tells us in His Word that love is more powerful than fear. That perfect love from God drives out fear!

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18

How does love cast out fear? I think to understand how to apply this truth to parenting, we need to look at our children in the same way God looks at His children (us!). We know that God is not controlled by fear, so He is our perfect example.

God is called our Father. He is compelled by love to parent us in such a way that benefits us. God gives us instruction as we might expect, but He also gives us freedom to fail, puts us in scenarios where we must struggle, He sets up tests that are not beyond our abilities, and He is there to hear us, encourage us, and rescue us when we inevitably fall short. He disciplines us and forgives us. He’s seeking to develop our growth and maturity–spiritually, emotionally, socially. He protects us from danger and through Jesus he has made a way to redeem us from sin and present us as perfect to our Father.

Even though many aspects of parenting cause me anxiety, I want the same things for my children. I want what is good for them. I want them to grow spiritually, emotionally, and socially so that as adults they can choose, like us, of their own free will to serve and glorify God. For me, this means:

Accepting the frustrations of muddy, messy, or even ruined clothes…so that they can learn to think creatively and independently.
Embracing unstructured outdoor play (even unsupervised)…so that they build self-reliance, resourcefulness, and see what trust looks like.

Tolerating mess & clutter (that’s hard to even type)…so that they can learn not to sweat the small stuff.

Giving them space to struggle and fail…so that they can develop perseverance and grit.

Allowing them to feel hurt and get hurt…so that they can learn perspective, risk-taking, and how to process pain so they can move forward.
Removing the distractions my worries create and committing to be present…so that they know I see them and we can have fun together!

Admitting to my children when I fall short and asking forgiveness…so that they see that it’s ok when my strength/ability is not enough and that we all need God’s forgiveness.

Giving my worst-case scenario fears up to God…so that they see me leaning on God’s protection.

Casting out my desire to make everything perfect…so that they see that Christ alone makes us perfect!

God is consistent and He is faithful to His promises. Yet, He allows all of us the freedom to choose. Even His Son, sent to die, was given a choice. Jesus himself says,

“For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” John 10:17-18

I have to choose as well. Will I be a slave to my fears? Or will I cast them out with the help of my Father and His perfect love?

Sometimes I feel like I’m winning the fight in my mind. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost and my worries consume me. I can feel the difference and so can my kids. Though God encourages us not to worry about tomorrow (Matt 6:34), He also gives us what we need to overcome it: perfect love. We know how much God loved us (John 3:16) and we know how powerful His gift of love is (Heb 2:14). Our own strength may not feel very powerful, but His love is more than powerful enough to cast out our fear. Hopefully our children will learn this truth by watching us and will conquer their own fears one day, whatever they may be.

I want to parent my children from love; not from my fears, worries, and anxiety. I want to free myself from the pressure I feel to get it right and trust in a Father who offers to make me righteous. I know my children and I will be better for it. I want to free my children to see the need for our Savior. Sometimes the very things that help us see God, are the things we fear the most.

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