Some of you may be familiar with the Amish practice of Rumspringa or “running-around” where teenagers are encouraged to experiment with the modern world for a period of time. At the end of this time they are expected to either join the Amish society permanently, or leave it forever. Until recent years, kids almost universally returned to the farm life they had grown up with, often having also made a decision about who their future mate would be in the process. However, in recent years, especially with the onset of drugs, the numbers are changing, and more kids than ever are leaving.
Such activity may seem like a distant story of another culture, but there are some significant lessons to be learned for those of us who know that our own kids will be facing similar temptations, and not just for a year, as with the Amish, but through their entire middle and high school years.
One of the reasons Amish parent feel like their children are prepared for such an event is that they have been thoroughly immersed and indoctrinated in the Amish culture. Certainly, there is some risk in allowing children, most about 16 years old, to venture so far from the norms they have grown up with. Parents feel the risk is worth taking, provided their kids come back wiser and even more committed to their native norms. It is one of the things that has held the Amish together for so long.
As the father of six and grandfather of five more, I can tell you with great confidence that your kids, too, will choose a time of “running around.” In that time they will challenge the norms they have grow up with to see for themselves which they prefer. I hear parents now say that they will simply let their kids make up their own minds, but such strategy is ill fated. Amish kids come to this time better indoctrinated than most, and better prepared to make rational decisions, yet even they fail the test. Recent research has shown us that some of the thinking tools that adults use to make good decisions are not fully operational until they are into their early twenties. This gives lie to the notion that children are “just little adults.” No, they are children and they need to be taught how make good decisions until their brains are mature enough to assume responsibility for themselves.
Children also need to see good decision-making in action. Every parent has experienced the sudden realization that our kids are watching us far closer than we had thought. We hear them use one of our favorite expressions, or one of our most common gestures, and we understand that very little of what we do is missed. For that reason alone, it is imperative that we demonstrate, not just the decision we have made, but the thought processes involved, as well.
As parents we tend to hide our mistakes, but this too is erroneous. Our kids need to see the effects of poor decisions and how we deal with them. One of the most important lessons we can teach our kids is that decisions have inevitable consequences, both good and bad and seeing that modeled in their parents is essential to their decision-making growth. Of course, there will be a few things that wouldn’t be appropriate to show your kids, but by and large, they need to see your mistakes and how you deal with the negative consequences.
Another strategy we need to employ is learning to loosen our grip slowly. As babies and toddlers we keep a tight grip on our kids, and rightfully so. As they get older, and especially as they get more mobile, our policy should be loosen our grip to accommodate their level of maturity. Kids need to know where the boundaries are. They will object no matter where you place them, so choose something you feel is fair and responsible for them.