Parenting demands age-appropriate responses

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

One evening my parents were entertaining friends. My siblings and I, preschoolers at the time, were supposed to be safely tucked in bed. However, according to my father’s tale, I appeared at the doorway, crooked my finger, and motioned for him to come to me.

“Come on in, honey,” my father invited. Then in a loud whisper I told him that my sister was sick.

One of the guests, a young internist physician, was urged by his wife to go with my father. He looked at my sister, made some doctor-motions, and said, shaking his head, “I don’t know. I think you ought to call the child’s doctor. I’m not that familiar with treating children.”

My father’s confused look prompted the doctor to elaborate, “Children are not just little adults, you know.”

That statement must have stuck with my father, because I heard it in stories or sermons throughout my childhood. At the time, I remember wondering exactly what was so different about being an adult and a child.

The truth is, I liked the statement. It seemed to calm my father and shift him into a more reflective, less punitive gear, especially when he was reacting to what my siblings and I had done — or not done.

Hey, we were just kids!

However, after parenting four children for 23 years, I now appreciate the full richness of that statement. Children are not “just little adults” physically, and they are not just little adults mentally, emotionally or spiritually, I’ve learned.

Choosing age-appropriate responses is often confusing. Do we “pick our battles,” letting some issues go, or “nip it in the bud,” correcting each small mistake before they become big ones?

Do we intervene and correct through punishments or rewards, or do we “let them learn,” allowing consequences to be the instructor?

Regardless of the daily discipline we choose, I believe that we should have high expectations of our children. We should call out the best that’s in them.

Yet, that is often hard to do.

For some, parenting appears effortless where children only need an occasional nudge to keep moving through a life seemingly hard-wired to be goal-oriented and purpose-driven.

For others, parenting is a contact sport, where every day requires shoulder pads, a helmet, a mouth guard — and a daily prayer that the right set of plays can be found for the next set of issues.

Ironically, we often discover more about ourselves than our children on the battlefields of parenting, especially when we parent a child unlike ourselves.

Should we expect as much from our children as was expected of us? Are we setting high expectations — or unrealistic demands?

Perhaps we should consider:

High expectations prompt goal-motivation; unrealistic demands generate fear-motivation.

High expectations create momentum; unrealistic demands destroy tender spirits.

High expectations fuel a fire-in-the-belly drive; unrealistic demands knot stomachs, derailing focus.

Perhaps with effort and reflection, we can find the right response at the right time that calls out the best in them — and in us.