let them make Messes.


Even at these early stages of parenting I can see how all of the lessons I’m learning now, I’ll have to re-learn as our children grow – even if they take place on a larger scale.

Lately our daughter has been learning to feed herself. While it is exciting, it can also be rather messy. As a mom (and a bit of a neat-freak), I want to jump in and help her or make things easier for her. I could feed her forever and save her the mess (and myself the clean up!), or I could learn to let go so that she can learn, even if she makes a few messes along the way. I could feed her, but if I don’t give her a chance to learn to feed herself, she may never learn that important skill. She’ll learn from the times she misses her mouth and makes a mess. In some sense, she needs to make a mess, make a few mistakes, in order to learn how to do things properly.

She may even define ‘feed herself properly’ differently than I do. And do you know what? That’s okay. I feed myself left-handed, and that’s proper for me. She may feed herself right-handed and that can be proper for her. That’s not moral relativism. It is simply acknowledging that there is more than one way to accomplish the goal of self-feeding.

Right now the skill is feeding herself. Some day it will be potty training: a few (or a lot) of messes, but she’ll have to learn because goodness knows I’m not changing diapers forever. Some day later on down the road it will be homework, quizzes and tests that she’ll have to figure out on her own. In this way, all of parenting is a slow letting go of control as our children learn to do things for themselves. Of course they are going to make mistakes. Of course they are going to make messes – many of which we may have to help them clean up as they grow. But the more I think about it, the more we need to let our kids make messes. We also need to teach them how to clean up their messes as well. If we do all of these things for them, they’ll never really learn how to stand on their own to feet, how to feed themselves, or even think for themselves. We’ll be raising a generation of dependent kids.

The day will come when the messes may be bigger: broken hearts from dating someone they probably shouldn’t have been, making a foolish investment, and so on. Even though the mess may be bigger, the lesson is still the same: as parents, we can’t control everything our children do. It is a difficult lesson to learn, I’m sure, since God gives us these children and tells us to tend to their souls and then simultaneously asks to slowly let go of control so that they – on their own two feet, with their own free will – can choose the path their life is going to take.

Though the lessons and skills children will learn will be harder than self-feeding, there are still multiple routes to the same end. Some of those routes may be harder than others. That doesn’t mean that I can – or should – try to save my kids from every difficult road they may put themselves on. All I can do is try my best to guide them, to give them the tools to make the best decisions – decisions that will lead them to being saints one day.

Neat-freak or not, we’ve got to let our kids make messes, whether it is feeding themselves or making a life-choice we may not agree with. After all, doesn’t God love us in this same way? He tells us through Scripture and the teachings of the Church what He wishes for our lives, but then He lets us choose. He lets us learn to feed ourselves, whether we find our fill from Him in the Eucharist or the trappings of the world. He loves us when we turn our hearts back to Him, even if we’ve made a host of decisions He doesn’t agree with and gotten ourselves into a giant mess. When we turn back to Him, He doesn’t sit there on His Mighty Throne and tell us that He was right all along, He simply pours out His mercy and love on us, rejoicing that we’ve returned (read the Parable of the Prodigal Son and you’ll see the kind of rejoicing God does over us when we turn back to Him). He loves us enough to let us make our messes if we need to or choose to. Why, then, should we not love our own children the same way He loves us?

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