“A Little Child Shall Lead Them” – How Following a Child’s Invitation Can Change and Improve Your Parenting
By Sean E. Brotherson
In learning about parenting and family life, it is common for mothers and fathers to seek out the Golden Answer, the great and mysterious truth that will rescue them from parenting difficulties. My friend and fellow Meridian writer, H. Wallace Goddard (“Wally” to those of us who know and love him), has suggested this is typically seen in books or articles that highlight something like “Dr. Shnedwicki’s Amazing 27-Step Formula for Success.” Beware of fool’s gold when searching for the Golden Answer. The better and more appropriate response to most parenting situations is quite simple: “It Depends” (again, credit to Dr. Wally Goddard).
However, it is true that there are great concepts and enlightening truths that can make the pathway of parenting a whole lot better. These are nuggets of gold that we find in our search along life’s path that we should treasure once we find them. They can change our fortunes and enrich our lives as mothers and fathers.
I’d like to share just one.
“A Little Child Shall Lead Them”
When speaking about parenting, we usually refer to the important role that parents play in giving guidance and supervision to their sons and daughters. And this is true. But we forget something about the parenting experience. It is a 2-way street. Influence does not flow simply in the direction of the parent to the child or just one way. It flows two ways. Influence also flows from the child to the parent. This may seem simple, but it has profound implications for parents.
Research on how the closeness develops between a parent and child, especially with young children, shows that the kind of interactions that take place between mothers or fathers and children are critical. Two important aspects of any interaction with a child are the following:
- Sensitivity – Are you aware of or sensitive to a child’s invitation for you to interact?
- Responsiveness – Do you respond quickly and appropriately to a child’s invitation for you to interact with them?
It has taken time for me to understand these concepts and integrate them into my understanding of parenting – but the reward has been marvelous. Maybe there are simple ways I can illustrate this.
President Boyd K. Packer is a person who is highly sensitive to the opportunities that come to parents in the lives of children. I have always been struck by a statement he once made. He commented that if he were falling off the roof of a house and a child of his walked by and asked a question, he would stop in mid-air, take time to respond and answer the question, and then fall the rest of the way to the ground. Think about that.
Are we attentive to the ways in which our children invite us constantly to be part of their lives in a meaningful way? Do we respond quickly and warmly and appropriately?
The challenge of this idea in parenting is that parents are used to getting children to follow their parental instructions and invitations, not the other way around. As parents, we ask kids to:
- Wash the dishes.
- Make your bed.
- Clean up your room.
- Get your shoes on.
- Scrub behind your ears.
- Read to your sister.
- Don’t forget your backpack.
- Listen to me while I’m talking.
- Stop yelling at your brother.
- Eat all the food on your plate.
- Stop making that nasty face.
In other words, we are used to asking children to follow us and what we ask them to do. This is necessary. But there are other opportunities.
As President Packer’s example points out, when a child asks a question it is an invitation. It is an opportunity. An opportunity not to be missed. An opportunity to be led.
Instead of always focusing on leading children to follow our direction, at times there is great power in being focused on being led by children as we respond to their invitations. I would summarize it this way:
- Children constantly give out invitations to parents to be involved in their lives and parents must be sensitive to these invitations.
- Parents should seek to follow a child’s invitation to be involved and respond to the invitation in a quick, warm and positive manner.
“And a little child shall lead them.” In a practical sense, do we really allow our little children to lead us at times? Are we willing to follow their lead? And where will it lead us in our parenting?
Overcoming Busyness and Responding to a Child’s Invitation
I think that perhaps the number one enemy of effective parenting in today’s world, especially responsive parenting as I suggest here, is busyness. It is lack of time. It is the rush and hurry and bustle of too much to do and too much attention to the priorities of money or excitement or, just, busyness.
Busyness is the enemy of being responsive to a child’s invitation because it short-circuits what is most needed by a parent – time and patience. Children cannot be parented on a time schedule that does not account for their own needs, promptings or impulses. You cannot schedule a butterfly chase. You cannot calendar a moment of laughter.
So, first you have to slow down. Walk in a child’s world for a few minutes.
I recently took an hour to meet my wife and two of our daughters for lunch at a local restaurant for a birthday outing. I spent some time watching their priorities versus our adult priorities.
The adults were focused on finding a table and getting food. The little girls were focused on getting their shoes off and scrambling into the play equipment.
Totally different priorities.
Typically, most adults (me included) would then focus on getting the children to come and eat. But, following the principle of responding to a child’s invitation, I noticed that my two-year old wanted her shoes off and then wanted me to follow her inside a tunnel. What to do? My shoes came off and into the tunnel we went. Other adults in the restaurant looked at me like I was, well, nutty and irresponsible. In the next fifteen minutes, I met most of their children crawling around the tunnels and having a great time while the parents sat below and visited. My two-year old and I had fun playing peek-a-boo around corners inside the tunnel.
When it was all done, I had something that I did not have and would not have if I had not responded to the invitation of the moment from a two-year old girl. A memory. A new link in our relationship. An understanding of each other. And of tunnels.
But crawling around a tunnel is not easy and it took time away from eating that food. That’s the point. Being sensitive to a child’s invitation and responsive to it is not easy. It takes time away from other things. It requires energy and patience. It means limiting busyness or the distractions all around you and focusing on a child’s world.
Following a Child’s Lead
I decided during one recent week to put this idea to work in a major way in my parenting. I will use examples that occurred with just one of my children. My focus that week was on one major thing-to respond to my child’s invitations to be involved in his life and his priorities and to be attentive to how it affected my life.
My children, who know that life can get busy, like to make sure that Mom or Dad will get their attention ahead of time when the opportunity arises. So, several weeks ago when my nine-year old son had a day off from school, he had taken it upon himself to write on the calendar for that day the following message: “Dad and boys will go to Bismarck to see the dinosaur museum.”
Bismarck is three hours away. I did not have the day off. But a boy invited me to take the day off and so I did. One father and two boys got into the car and we drove three hours one way to go to the state heritage museum and see dinosaurs and various other things.
You’ll never believe what we saw that day. Ancient shark teeth. A Triceratops skull. The bones of a mosasaur (look it up). And the skeleton of a mastodon. Now think about that. It is not every day that you see the skeleton of a mastodon and answer a boy’s questions about it. What would my day have been like if I had done my own thing? I would have sat behind a desk. And I would not have seen a mastodon skeleton. I would not have listened to my boys exchange ideas about ancient life and the gospel and whether they would grow up to be paleontologists.
I received another invitation from my nine-year old boy a couple of days later to go with him and his Scout troop to visit the local planetarium at a nearby college. It did not really fit into my schedule. But he invited me. He hoped I would be there. So I left work a little bit early, traveled home, and together my son and I went to the planetarium. We spent an hour in darkness as we learned of constellations, the current movements of the planets in our solar system, and the North Star. We learned that five planets could be seen in the night sky on the coming weekend.
When it was time to ask questions, my nine-year old boy’s hand was in the air. The first question he asked the planetarium guide was something like this: “Scientists recently discovered what might be a new planet in our solar system called Sedna, and it would be the tenth planet. Can you tell us about its circumference and whether it should be classified as a planet or an asteroid?”
I just tried to keep up. It’s quite an experience to listen to your nine-year old ask questions of a planetarium guide that you yourself don’t know much about. His next question was about the size of an underwater crater in the Gulf of Mexico that had probably been made by the impact of an asteroid.
On the way home, we talked about finding the North Star. I told him the story of President Hinckley sleeping out at night as a boy with his brother and finding the North Star in the sky. Of the way it expressed certainty and steadiness in a changing world.
I spent Friday evening of that weekend on the back porch with a pair of binoculars, scanning the sky for visible planets. We found Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Pluto, I think. It doesn’t really matter that much. What matters, as you think about it, is that I spent some great hours studying the stars with a boy and I never would have done it if I hadn’t responded to his invitation. I would never have done it if I hadn’t followed his lead. I probably would have read a book. Which is more interesting, finding the planet Jupiter in the heavens overhead or reading a book? Think about that.
A final experience from that week with this same boy was that it turned out to be “Pinewood Derby” week in the Scout program. For those who are unfamiliar with this tradition, it involves each Scout making a small race car and then having a competition and racing the cars against each other. It can be pretty exciting stuff. I had stuff to do. But a boy needed a car.
My son sketched out the shape of the car he wanted on the block of wood that his car was to be made from, and then we worked together with a friend to sand it and cut it to the right shape. Apparently, adding the right amount of weight to the car is a big strategy for racing success, so we went together to a local delivery shop to have it weighed and to add weight until it was just right. While there, I got to observe quite a conversation between the shop owner and my nine-year old son on which candidate should get our vote in the upcoming US presidential election.
Finally, the night of the big race came and we went together as a family to the church and raced cars for an hour or two.
My son was excited. He was happy. His car had a great black lightning racing stripe on the side that he’d added. With a magic marker. It looked awesome. I was really proud of him.
Changed by a Child’s Invitation
As I think about the week that I just described and consider its value in my life, I am astounded by the change in my life that occurred because I followed the invitation of a child.
If I had planned that week, I would have worked and loved my kids and worked some more and been pretty busy. I would remember little of anything that I did at work or at church or around the house.
As I followed my son’s invitations to be part of his life that week, I had the following experiences.
I traveled three hours both ways and was able to see a mastodon skeleton and the teeth of ancient sharks.
I scanned the night sky with binoculars and was able to find the North Star and five different planets shining in the sky above.
I built a race car with my son and watched him compete and enjoy the racing experience.
Which week do you think is most interesting? My point is simply, that when we choose to follow the lead of a child, we choose to be changed. We begin to see and experience our children in ways that we have not done before. We come to understand them better and love them more. We are changed in ways that can let us become better parents, the mothers and fathers that the Lord would have us become.
The Invitation – Follow a Child’s Lead and Share Your Experience
Learning and practicing this simple but profound lesson of parenting has been a joy in my parenting experience. It has changed the way I respond to my children and magnified the love I feel for each of them.
Let me share an invitation with you to try the same principle. Select one or two of your children and choose to spend a few days or one week focused on responding to that child’s invitations to experience life with them. Their invitations can range from simple to complex. They might include:
- Giving a hug.
- Reading a book.
- Looking at an insect outside on the ground.
- Running through the sprinklers.
- Talking about a problem with a friend.
- Playing in the tree house.
- Building a fort out of pillows and blankets.
- Shooting baskets in the driveway.
- Eating ice cream.
- Going to see a mastodon skeleton.
- Scanning the night sky for planets and the North Star.
- Building a race car.
Be sensitive and respond. Record your experiences and what you learn about your child, yourself, and your parenting. See if it works. Then, if you have something you would like to share, drop me a note about your experience and I will try to share some of your experiences in a future column.
Let’s experience what it really can be like for “a little child to lead them.” Teenagers count too.