Grace Ji-Sun Kim: Christian parents must allow their children the freedom to develop their own identities

The author and her daughter celebrate her high school graduation. Image courtesy of Grace Ji-Sun Kim

A parent’s desire to guarantee a child’s success prevents the child’s own development -- and is not the way God parents us, says a theologian and mother.

Recently, some affluent parents were indicted by federal prosecutors for bribing their children’s way into elite universities. The crimes highlighted the inequality and privilege that reside within our educational system.

It was wrong, but as a parent of children both in college and college-bound, I cannot help but sympathize with the parents’ rationalizations. They had the means, so they did what they could to provide their children an opportunity. The temptation they faced -- to try to guarantee a child’s success -- is something I can relate to.

Christian parents should of course aim to afford their children the freedom that God affords us, but doing so is difficult, especially today.

I grew up in the ’70s, a period that allowed children much greater independence, and much looser parental control. Children of my generation would play outside for hours, getting bruises and having fun.

As a little girl, when I came home from school, I would drop my bags by the door and rush out to play with kids from our apartment complex until 6 p.m. Around then, all the mothers, including mine, would rush out to their balconies and call out for their kids to come home. My mother would linger on our sixth-floor balcony, periodically looking down to make sure my sister and I were still alive, until she inevitably cried out, “Dinnertime. Come home!”

We would come in tired, though restless enough to argue with one another, and be sent off to do our homework. Somehow, after the homework, we would always be able to fit in an extra interval of play until it got dark.

Now, as a parent of three teens, I reflect on the fact that I never allowed my children to play outside unsupervised. Despite my fond memories of childhood play, I felt a keen responsibility to ensure that if my children were playing, they were being watched.

As I raised my kids -- chasing after them, reapplying sunscreen every two hours, closely monitoring any potentially dangerous activities -- my mother would languidly ask why we were imposing such rigid plans.

Times have changed, and so has parenting.

With an excess of instant information, we have become so involved in the futures we envision for our children that we tend to think we must micromanage their lives. Increasingly, it has become the norm to manage where our children play, whom they interact with, and what activities they engage in. We end up overscheduling their days, stealing the developmental time they could otherwise be using to form a sense of themselves and perhaps a better sense of others.

I am guilty of such parenting. When my youngest child was in the second grade, he was involved in soccer, swimming, piano, Korean school and other activities that kept him fully occupied. One day after school, exhausted from going from one event to the next, he grabbed me and said, “Mom, why did you have to sign me up for school?” To his young mind, everything he was forced to be involved in was something I had signed him up for.

Like most Asian Americans, I was raised to value formal education very highly -- even as a measure of social worth. I am accustomed to a culture wherein family and friends incessantly compare their successes. Parents especially cannot help but gossip about whose son got a perfect SAT score or whose daughter was accepted into what revered program. It contributes to their own self-worth, or at least grants bragging rights at the dinner table.

Stereotypes such as the tiger mom or helicopter parents show just how different parenting is today. Of course, highly involved parenting is most often in pursuit of “wanting the best” for our kids. But wanting the best can go wrong. The parents involved in the recent scandal were willing to break laws to ensure that their children could attend the best schools.

The scandal has further illuminated to the mainstream both the gross inequality within the American educational system and the common desire to shape our children’s choices, and thus their identities.

We need to think twice about what we are doing with our children’s education and recognize how trying to control their futures and guarantee their success actually stunts their growth.

During my daughter’s last two years of high school, I wanted to do everything in my power to ensure that she would get into a top school. I pushed her. I pushed her hard -- I admit, I tiger-momed her a little bit. In the period of studying and applications, it felt as if I were the one applying. I was completely, stressfully invested.

But now as I look forward, with my daughter entering her first year of college, I want -- finally -- to allow my children the space to grow into themselves, to allow them to breathe in their new environment, to give them the liberty of maturing on their own terms.

It is difficult for parents to let go, to give our children independence as they begin to enter the murky waters of adulthood. Even so, I adamantly believe that this is one of the most important disciplines for parents: to trust in our children and let them grow.

This is, after all, how God parents us. God, as our mother, allows us to grow into our own identities.

In a time when parents feel so pressured to condition their children for success, we seem to have sacrificed the beautiful freedoms, including the freedom to fail, that were afforded to children in decades past. As I look back, it was the freedom that my mother gave me that provided the space and the time I needed to settle into the woman I was becoming.

I trust that my only daughter will confront the coming years of education and adulthood with optimism and confidence. I know that it will be a time of growth, volatility, stress, friendships, learning and joy. And I will give her the freedom to grow into the woman she becomes.