“You a bad Mama!” My feisty blue-eyed-blonde two-year-old hurled the accusation with all her strength. This is my fourth child—and not the first time my judgment has clashed with a child’s desires.
“I will always love you, no matter what,” I said, holding out my arms. My baby girl melted into the hug, shedding guilty tears in relief. She didn’t need to be told that lashing out in frustration wasn’t fair. She also knew I wasn’t going to back down. She sighed, dried her tears, and crawled into bed for the unwanted nap.
I still consider myself a novice at this whole raising kids thing. But eight years in the parenting trenches has taught me that my job is to stand in the gap between what my children think they want— and what they really need. And, perhaps even harder, to stand in the gap between what the world thinks they need and what they actually require to grow and develop into the unique people they were born to become.
I’ll never forget my second day living in Taiwan. It was a beautiful day in mid-January. Back then I only had two children and the youngest– a chubby 17-month-old– was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Two women swept down upon us, rubbing his bare arms and chattering vigorously in Mandarin. The only thing I could make out was a repeated phrase, “Bu Mama!”
I know their concern was genuine and, even without the communication barrier, it’s unlikely I could have ever convinced them that this warm-blooded child who flew out of Idaho when it was 14 degrees on Saturday couldn’t possibly need a coat when it was 75 degrees in Taiwan on Monday.
It’s never fun to be called a “bad mother.” But in a world that threatens to overwhelm our children, they desperately need someone to protect them. They don’t just need protection from horrors that make up today’s news headlines. But, as I would learn within months of that big move to Taiwan, our children need to be protected from toxic levels of expectations.
As I explored in-depth in Dying to Win, families everywhere are feeling the pressure of living in an overstressed world. In Asia school systems struggle to figure out how to reduce academic competition that’s pushing way too many students to the brink of suicide. In Nubian villages, many students are too busy memorizing the contents of textbooks to connect with their families and cultural heritage. In America, researchers found a disturbing correlation between the academic calendar year and youth suicide rates. It’s like academic anxiety is a contagious disease spreading across the globe.
As the dangers of obsessing over test scores become increasingly apparent, there’s a parallel drive to let our kids experience more in life. The lists of great classes and activities to help them become “well-rounded” is endless. It’s true that there’s so much more to life than just schoolwork, but it’s also easy for so many good activities to crowd out the best things in life. At any age, our children need time and space to process what’s happening in life, reflect on who they are, and discover what they’re meant to be in this world.
As parents, we have a responsibility to look at the big picture and make our absolute best guess as to exactly what our children do, and don’t, need. At times we have to look deeply into our children’s faces, strive to read their hearts, and see the two-year-old deep inside who needs a nap more than anything else in the world. Even if our choice to slow down at times clashes with worldly desires. Even when we know our child’s needs defy cultural expectations. Even if someone might call us a “bad mamas.”