“My way or the highway.” You know the parents I am referencing. Some of us called them Mom or Dad! There are still parents that believe a firm stance is a way to earn respect or that shaming children is a way to gain obedience and stay in control. For these parents, structure comes before nurture.
As I was growing up, I also knew kids who didn’t have a bedtime, didn’t have to clean their plates, and didn’t have to ask before helping themselves to a snack. We will still find those choices on today’s parenting continuum. For these parents, being permissive is a way to encourage self-actualization and develop independence. Nurture is valued above structure.
University of Minnesota researcher Jean Illsley Clarke wrote Growing Up Again based on her study of parenting styles. Jean stated that our relationship framework is directly affected by how we balance nurture and structure. Nurture is how we care for our kids and encourage their development. Families are also impacted by how we establish rules and boundaries, which is about structure. We don’t give up being a parent when our students grow into young adults, but we do need to adapt our approach to our child’s ages and stages. As parents of college students, striking the right balance at the right time and for the right reason directly impacts our young adults’ growth, independence, and our relationships with them as they mature.
Clarke used the “Parenting Highway” as a metaphor to describe when the balance is right and when we veer off track in our parenting choices. Imagine a road with two freshly paved lanes to get you where you want to go. Travel is pretty smooth—unless you run off the road onto the shoulder, or worse. If you lose control of the car and land in the ditch, you get into the kind of deep trouble that requires help to get you back on course.
The two center lanes represent our response to our son or daughter’s need for nurture and structure.
The first paved lane represents an assertive approach where structure takes the lead. Lane 1 expects our sons and daughters to fall in step with the family rules we believe are in their best interest. As parents, we anticipate their needs and how to meet them. Rules may be non-negotiable, but we provide help when we discern that help is necessary. Our communication is positive and discipline is clear and fair. We know that families thrive on routines that kids can count on. For example, family traditions, a scheduled mealtime, delegating household responsibilities, and establishing bedtime routines add a sense of security and stability.
However, in the name of structure, it is easy to drift out of Lane 1 and onto the conditional shoulder. Here, help is given only when our student meets our expectations. When they have our approval, we respond with support. When they don’t, we may fall into the trap of criticism, sarcasm, or discouraging words that allow a sense of inadequacy to take root. An example might be expecting our student to meet performance objectives in order to earn financial support for college, when in actuality, that kind of pressure may be the cause of failure instead.
Paved Lane 2 represents a supportive approach to nurture where we ask our son or daughter what they need and allow them to accept, decline, or discuss the terms. Our Lane 2 rules are negotiable with room for independent thinking. Our communication is still positive with clear and fair discipline, but we offer help or wait for it to be requested rather than decide when it is needed. We know that our kids learn to be responsible when they are encouraged to find out what they are capable of and learn their limits by testing them. For example, I have a colleague that hopes his son will run races with him. Motivation for running might be inspired by his example or an invitation to train together. However, he knows his son will find satisfaction in running only if he makes his own decision and sets his own goals.
Unfortunately, in the name of nurture it is easy to drift over onto the overindulgent shoulder where there are few limits and parents do things that their child is capable of doing themselves. Expectations are not clear and consequences are few. This is where we step into our kids’ lane. This week, one of my colleagues was working with a student whose mom was in tow. The mom insisted that her daughter had more questions and proceeded to ask them on her behalf. When the student rolled her eyes and marched out of the room, it was clear that mom had overstepped her student’s ability to self-advocate and operate independently.
On the other side of the shoulders are the ditches of abuse and neglect, where either nurture is edged out by control and rigidity or where structure is abandoned altogether. All of us veer off course to different degrees occasionally. Stress, illness, financial setbacks, and crisis management are a part of real life that affect our ability to keep our parenting on track. Or, we may be unconsciously forgetting our commitment not to repeat our parents’ unhealthy patterns. We know that the evil one loves to attack our parenting confidence when we drift off the road.
Where are you on the parenting highway? If you are on the shoulder or even in the ditch, how can you get back on the pavement? Don’t be afraid to call for help. Hint: the tow truck might look like a family member, support group, or professional counselor. If you are on the road, what lane are you in? How would you like to steer differently? Self-awareness helps us be intentional about choosing the balance between structure and nurture. Mindfulness helps us stay flexible in evaluating when to take charge and when to allow our student to take the lead in their decisions.
I find it affirming that God demonstrates the perfect marriage of structure and nurture. He is the Lord of all justice and also the ultimate giver of mercy. Scripture is clear about the Law and that we all fall short of it. The Word is also clear about the abundant grace we are offered regardless of our flaws. God is truly the only perfectly balanced parent.
While we can’t possibly match God’s perfection, who better to ask for help in striking the right balance? And, what better time than our students’ college years to reevaluate their needs? While our parenting does not end, the roles we play in our students’ live will. As my son becomes more self-sufficient, he needs less structure. Can I pray about what rules could now be negotiable? As my daughter manages an apartment of her own, she seems independent but still needs security. What familiar family rhythms do I want to focus on when she returns home? Is Spring Break a good time to begin a conversation about “changing lanes?”
The good news is that parenting progressively becomes more about just loving our young adults well. We do less giving help when we think they need it. Instead, we learn to allow them to tell us when they need our support. We navigate prayerfully as we make course corrections and steer a little more towards Lane 2 for the home stretch of our parenting journey.