Secure Enough to Explore
Middle school. MIDDLE SCHOOL. I have heard adults look back and bemoan their experiences…and dread these years for their own children. The more my time in middle school (ahem—JUNIOR HIGH back then) fades in my rear view mirror the more I realize three things.
- It probably wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.
- Whatever WAS bad was probably incredibly normal and part of the universal experiences of most youth.
- I had a lot of personal resources (family, church, community, extracurricular activities, academic focus, etc.) in my life to help me navigate and sail through whatever waters WERE turbulent. For that I feel incredibly fortunate.
I approached the advent of middle school for my oldest daughter with some trepidation, but I had come to believe that she was going to be ok. Really ok.
I remember her first day. I can still see her leaving the house. I peeked through the door to watch her walk to the bus stop. I waited all day for her to get home so I could ask her how things went. And, I have asked her every day since.
I can happily say that we are almost half way through her middle school journey (what?!) and I look around to realize that I am having fun parenting this strong, smart, spunky girl through this stage of her life. FUN. Imagine that. Hard conversations, yes. Bumpy days, sure, but I’m starting a campaign to help parents know…it just isn’t that bad. You can be ok. Your son or daughter can be ok. Focus on building and maintaining a two-way respectful relationship with them (yes, that includes boundaries) and let go of some of the anxiety. Anxiety makes us edgy, over reactive, and rigid.
Above all…believe in your kid (which, I am finding, is directly related to your belief in YOURSELF as a parent).
It will change the way you approach every conversation with them.
Various cultures use this time of life to ceremoniously welcome and usher the young person into adulthood. Rituals at this age serve as markers and acknowledge that some things are changing. There is a leaving behind of childhood that starts to take place. Some American communities that have not traditionally followed such rituals or ceremonies have started adopting and creating similar events. Churches offer rite of passage experiences as young people move from elementary to middle school ministries in the church. Other individual families create their own traditions with parties or other customs.
After watching friends and family members provide these experiences for their own children I knew that I wanted to do something meaningful for my own kids. I read Sticky Faith by Dr. Kara Powell. I looked and watched what I saw others doing. I did a lot of thinking.
One of the complications of planning such a process that fit our family was that when my oldest daughter was fast approaching twelve, the birthday when I wanted to do this really meaningful thing, we had recently moved away from family and friends she had known almost her entire life. A big party with all of her “elders” seemed out of the question. Additionally, some of the important people in her life she did not remember…people who knew her in California and Prague when she was a baby and toddler. I watched one friend have her children meet with a different person each week for the entire year. That seemed like too much for our family in terms of time commitment…and, again, where would I get 52 women when we had just moved to our new home?
Moreover, what was my goal for this entire thing anyway? What was I trying to do for…or give to…my daughter?
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge cloud of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And, let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.
There it is.
If you get me talking about my research for very long then you eventually will hear me say something about Attachment Theory. Without going into great depth about such an important (and helpful) theory in the body of social science literature, let me explain briefly a few things. Attachment Theory is about relationships and how we need relationships to survive. A baby that feels secure in her relationship with her mom will stay close to mom (or dad) and this closeness will keep her safe. In the jungle or “back in the day” this closeness would have, quite literally, helped her to survive and not die. In today’s world that same physical safety might be true to some degree, but it is also true that secure relationships with others help us to survive emotionally and spiritually.
There is a misconception that Attachment Theory is about staying close to mom and dad (or other caregivers) all of the time. That idea is false. The purpose of the “secure base” (see John Bowlby’s works on Attachment Theory) is to give a strong enough foundation to enable the growing individual to explore.
Therefore, since we are surrounded….
…let us RUN.
You see kids do this on the playground all the time. They hug mom and then run off to play. Then they come back and “check in”…and run off to play. Back and forth, back and forth. Depending on the age (and temperament) of the child, the length of time in between the “check in’s” and “play” varies. Typically the time between “check in’s” grows with the child’s age. My guess is that if you are an adult and something good happens in your life (or, for that matter, something hard) you are still inclined to reach for your phone (or email) and “check in” with your mom or dad.
Children who do not develop a secure home base (secure relationship with mom, dad, or another caregiver) actually become more anxious and fear based in their decisions. They might show a false sense of independence to avoid having to ask for help OR they will be clingy and never learn to explore at all.
We moved to our new home just as my daughter was nearing the middle school years. We took her away from a piece of her secure base and I think there was a part of me that needed to reaffirm her foundation. I wanted to pull back the veil on her cloud of witnesses as she began to enter the age of exploration.
Therefore, since we are surrounded….
…let us RUN.
So her dad and I set up our own ceremony for our daughter that was personalized and would span the course of a year. It was pretty simple. Here is what we did.
- The twelve letters from women. We asked twelve women from parts of her entire life to write letters to her. A few of these were women she did not remember, but we knew that they had been an important part of her life. Grandmothers, aunts, the mom of one of her long time friends, a missionary friend we spent time with in Prague, a friend in California, etc. Some of the women snail mailed their letters. Some letters were emailed. When received, I put each one into an individual envelope.
We gave all twelve of these letters to our daughter on the morning of her twelfth birthday.
- The twelve visits. For the entire year of her twelfth birthday we asked twelve women from her new and CURRENT faith community to spend time with her for a few hours, each one assigned to a different month. We tried to choose women who were from different walks and seasons of life. We wanted this time to be an opportunity for our daughter to put down some relational roots in her new faith community. Each visit looked very different. Our daughter had questions to ask them, but they mostly just hung out over food or an activity.
- The twelve letters from men. Finally, we asked twelve men from parts of her entire life to write letters to her…because girls need men speaking into their lives, too. Again, a few of these men she did not remember, but we had special reasons for asking each one of them to contribute. They snail mailed or emailed the letters to us and when received we put each letter into individual envelopes.
We gave these twelve letters to our daughter on the morning of her thirteenth birthday to close out “Project Twelve”.
It took some minor effort on our part, an openness on our daughter’s part, and a sacrifice and willingness on the part of those who participated, a sacrifice we do not take for granted. Time is precious in our world and it is a great gift.
Our daughter never complained. She smiled and always seemed excited…in her very personalized, unflappable way (if you know our oldest daughter then you know what I mean). She was grateful and appreciative. I also did not go into preparing this experience for her with an expected response from her. It was a gift to be experienced the way that she needed to on her terms. I recognized throughout the process that my daugther may not really “get” it, perhaps, for a long while.
So everything was going well and we were about to wrap up this whole “Project Twelve” experience when I started getting the letters from the men in our daughter’s life.
It was almost midnight and I made the mistake of checking my email one last time before bed. I saw an email from our friend in Fresno, California. It would be almost 9 PM there. I clicked the email open to see that he had sent the letter for our daugther. I made another mistake.
I opened it.
And started reading.
He had inserted pictures of her from when we had lived on the west coast. There she was in her one-year-old Halloween costume…a cheeky little monkey.
I was unprepared for the emotion that welled up inside of me or for the tears that flowed down my cheeks onto my pillow.
It was then that I realized that my daughter was not the only one who needed to have the veil pulled back on the cloud of witnesses.
I needed someone to see me…to see US…too.
I needed to know that someone had been witnessing this lonely parenting journey we all find ourselves on in this highly connected, deeply isolated world.
In fact, maybe this whole “Project Twelve” thing had not been for my daughter at all. Maybe, it was entirely self-serving.
I’m sure it was. I’m sure it was because so much of parenting is self-serving even while it is self-giving. We re-parent ourselves even as we parent our own children. We grow them up day by day…and grow our own self up a little bit more right along with them.
Over the next days as more letters came in, more tears flowed and I was overwhelmed as I looked back on the entire “Project Twelve” experience with love and gratitude for the people I call friends and family….our family’s people.
And, that was part of what I wanted to give to my daughter, too. In a world of hundreds (or thousands!) of Facebook friends and countless “likes” on pictures and posts…you have to know who your people are. You have to be intentional about listening and cultivating and reaching out and making time. You have to pray and watch and know when to say yes and when to say no..and to whom. You have to be part of knowing your cloud of witnesses.
I felt my own sense of security reaffirmed even as I had worked to give that very gift of secure foundation to my daughter…a secure launching pad for a lifetime of exploration. She has a lot of running and exploring left to do. She is just beginning, but our need for the secure foundation…or exploring…never really goes away.
Therefore, since we are surrounded….
…let us RUN.
I hope and pray you are reminded of your own cloud of witnesses today…and that you feel secure enough to explore. To ask questions. To wonder. To run.