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Just Let Kids Be Vs. Have a Structure to Explore Values Together
An Inner Dialogue
For the last few years, I’ve worked on a project that helps families explore timeless values and expansive spirituality at home. Users tell us that it’s helped them navigate their mixed-faith marriage, take a more expansive approach to their religion, or provided some needed structure after leaving. (Our Instagram page features their stories.)
What we offer isn’t for everyone, and one critique in particular continues to live inside me.
That’s what I explore in this dialogue, which features two fictional voices (1 and 2).
On the surface, it’s a dialogue about the project I linked to above. But really, it’s a dialogue that explores what it means to “just let kids be.”
1: Hey, have you heard of this resource that helps families explore values together? We’ve been using it on Sundays for the past three weeks, and we’ve really liked it.
2: Yeah, I’ve looked through that. I admire the effort, but it’s not for me.
1: Interesting. Why’s that?
2: I used to worry that my kids wouldn’t be good unless they had a specific set of rules to learn and follow — a “program.” But it was overwhelming. My kids resisted. I felt exhausted. So I don’t worry about that anymore.
1: Yeah, some days it’s hard to pull the kids together.
2: Trust me, it only becomes more exhausting the older they get.
1: So what do you do now?
2: Nothing. I just let them be. My kids will become who they’re meant to become regardless of what I do anyway. They’re not mine to control.
1: I get that — in theory, at least. In practice it stresses me out.
2: Why? Try it. You’ll feel relieved.
1: What does “nothing” look like?
2: You know, on Sundays we’ll joke around or play a game together. Or maybe — and I know this isn’t the best — sometimes Madison will hop on TikTok and Instagram while Clay plays watches YouTube or Netflix. But whatever happens, it’s just calm. No expectations, no feeling like we’re not enough.
1: That does sound relaxing.
1: But that’s not just “letting your kids be,” is it?
2: What do you mean?
1: I mean that all of those companies — TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix — shape kids in their own way, usually according to a set of algorithms. So if “nothing” includes “watching something on a device,” then it consists of outsourcing influence to someone else. That’s not letting them be.
2: But you let your kids watch things on a device.
1: Sometimes, yeah. In a limited way.
2: So it sounds like you’re saying I should let my kids be on devices but I should do it with more anxiety.
1: Hahaha, I can see how it comes across that way. I only mean that it’s difficult to “just let kids be” when they’re part of a context and culture that pulls them in a certain direction, usually toward consumerism. That’s why I worry that if I don’t add my voice to the mix — if I don’t have regular conversations about what matters most in life — then my kids will be whoever our consumer-driven culture wants them to be.
2: You worry they’ll be too… consumerist?
1: I worry about rising rates of teenage depression, anxiety, and despair — which feels related to consumerism.
2: Well, the solution to that problem isn’t more worry. I think about that Mary Oliver line, “I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up.”
1: Yeah, but Mary Oliver didn’t say to give your one wild and precious life to a device.
2: That’s not what I’m saying either. Sure, sometimes we’re on devices. But when my kids need something, I put my device away and listen. I give them hugs. I tell them I love them. I let them know they’re always worthwhile.
1: I do the same thing.
2: That’s great. I just know that when I’m full of worry about sticking to a program, I have less room for love.
1: What if the program were held lightly and rooted in love?
2: That could work, if it came naturally.
1: “Naturally”? Or “effortlessly”? Good things often take effort and don’t feel natural at first.
2: I like that question, and I’ll sit with it. For now, I just know that when I think about doing a program, I feel the part of myself that can’t relax rise to the surface — that stifling perfectionist I’ve worked so hard to let go of.
1: Yeah, I hear that. I feel that tension inside too. It’s a question I ask myself all the time: Am I letting my inner perfectionist run the show, or am I rooted in love?
I’ll leave those voices there in their questions. And as always, I’m left with more:
Are structure and love inherently at odds?
Does structure lead to love or detract from it? Or is that the wrong question?
What sorts of things help a kid become their best self? Should that even be the goal of parenting?
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