(Part Two of Four: 
                 Safeguarding the Journey-#1)

In the previous article I introduced you to Grant and Grace, the geese couple who practiced parenthood on the small lake behind my office building. The seven goslings they produced were certainly fun to watch as they wobbled around on land, played in the water, and hunted for sources of food. The adage “silly as a goose” seemed inappropriate for this particular pair of parents, for they appeared to be doing a fantastic job rearing their children and equipping them for their ultimate launch into full goose adulthood. I’ve often wondered what happened to those seven “kids” after they graduated from their childhood on the lake. Hopefully, they have all survived and are currently on their own parenting journeys with new families.
Grant and Grace believed strongly in the importance of protecting their offspring. They remained on constant vigilance, always alert to anything that posed a threat to their family. I recall the loud hissing, flapping of wings, and threatening gestures I received from them that first time I unwittingly crossed their safety barrier. I quickly learned to keep a respectful distance as I monitored their progress. My observations prompted a wide variety of thoughts and ponderings about how we as human beings approach and practice parenthood in regard to our role in “protecting our children.” 

The protector role is indeed one of several vital responsibilities for adults who are traveling the Parenting Highway. While our human imperfections probably disqualify us from achieving the status of true professionalism in the work of “protecting our children,” we still aspire to being the best “pro” parent we can possible become. The great majority of parents would no doubt affirm the belief that effective parents must protect their children from harm and danger. Yet, while our intentions may be positive we too often fall short in actual day-to-day practice.
Our job as parents is to set up and enforce basic “child protective services” because our children need protection, whether or not the children welcome or even want the supervision. In our efforts to fulfill this job many of us struggle with the details, particularly in regard to the types of protection needed, the best ways to provide the protection, and the adjustments to make as our children grow up and need a decreasing level of protective services.
During the thirty years I’ve worked as a Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve encountered countless families who were struggling intensely around this “protector role.” Admittedly, I struggled personally in my efforts to fulfill that role with my two daughters, and at times I felt as if I had many more questions than answers. Sometimes I identified with the story of a single man with no children who wrote a book entitled, “Ten Commandments for Parents.” Then he got married and started a family. After the children came and he began to understand the perils of parenthood, he revised the book and changed the title to “Ten Suggestions for Parents.” After a few more years his children moved into adolescence. In the midst of new stresses and challenges he revised his book yet again. The new title was “Ten Questions for Parents.”  Perhaps you also identify with this process of change from “commandments” to “suggestions” to “questions,” not only in regard to the issue of protection but also in your struggles with other key roles inherent in parenthood.
Our parental role as a protector was illustrated and clarified by a story I read years about the “Keepers of the Springs.” The story was told by Peter Marshall, the acclaimed chaplain who served our national Congress during the 1940’s, in a sermon he delivered about parenthood. As you read his story perhaps you will also connect with the underlying message.
Once upon a time, a certain town grew up at the foot of a mountain range.  It was sheltered in the lee of the protecting heights, so that the wind that shuddered at the doors and flung handfuls of sleet against the window panes was a wind whose fury was spent. High up in the hills, a strange and quiet forest dweller took it upon himself to be the Keeper of the Springs.  He patrolled the hills and wherever he found a spring, he cleaned its brown pool of silt and fallen leaves, of mud and mold and took away from the spring all foreign matter, so that the water which bubbled up through the sand ran down clean and cold and pure.  It leaped sparkling over rocks and dropped joyously in crystal cascades until, swollen by other streams, it became a river of life to the busy town. Millwheels were whirled by his rush.  Gardens were refreshed by its waters.  Fountains threw it like diamonds into the air.  Swans sailed on its limpid surface, and children laughed as they played on its banks in the sunshine.

But the City Council was a group of hard-headed, hard-boiled businessmen.  They scanned the civic budget and found in it the salary of a Keeper of the Springs.  Said the Keeper of the Purse: “Why should we pay this romance ranger?  We never see him; he is not necessary to our town’s work life.  If we build a reservoir just above the town, we can dispense with his services and save his salary.” Therefore, the City Council voted to dispense with the unnecessary cost of a Keeper of the Springs, and to build a cement reservoir.
So the Keeper of the Springs no longer visited the brown pools but watched from the heights while they built the reservoir.  When it was finished, it soon filled up with water, to be sure, but the water did not seem to be the same.  It did not seem to be as clean, and a green scum soon befouled its stagnant surface.  There were constant troubles with the delicate machinery of the mills, for it was often clogged with slime, and the swans found another home above the town.  At last, an epidemic raged, and the clammy, yellow fingers of sickness reached into every home in every street and lane.

The City Council met again.  Sorrowfully, it faced the city’s plight, and frankly it acknowledged the mistake of the dismissal of the Keeper of the Springs.  They sought him out of his hermit hut high in the hills, and begged him to return to his former joyous labor.  Gladly he agreed, and began once more to make his rounds. It was not long until pure water came lilting down under tunnels of ferns and mosses and to sparkle in the cleansed reservoir.  Millwheels turned again as of old.  Stenches disappeared. Sickness waned and convalescent children playing in the sun laughed again because the swans had come back. *

Like Marshall’s “Keepers of the Springs,” every parent faces the mountainous task of protecting children from the dangers that pose threat to health and safety. In protecting our children we strive to safeguard their journey toward adulthood. Clearly, our travels are treacherous along the parenting highway. We cannot maintain 100% protection against every possible threat; life is too complicated and the threats are too numerous for a perfect defense. Yet, while there are no absolute guarantees, we establish and enforce reasonable safeguards against physical and emotional threats. We set limits and boundaries designed to protect, and we enforce those limits and boundaries with assertive consistency. We make the children wear seat belts and use special seats in cars; we make them take vaccines and appropriate medication; we place smoke alarms and emergency equipment in the houses where they live. The list of “protective services” seems endless as we try to fulfill our protector role. With these thoughts in mind let’s explore several avenues through which we can establish and implement a protection program. 

As already implied, one question is vital:  “How do we protect our children?” The answers to this question merit much more investigation than what this brief article can contain. However, let’s consider four “I-Words” that will offer avenues of assistance or tools to use in our “child protective services.” Speaking of “I-Stuff,” kids in contemporary culture are immersed in “I-technology” such as IPhones, IPads, and IPods. As much as they value such impressive and stimulating devices, even more so they need “protection technology” from us as their parents. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they need that protection from us so that their ultimate launch site can be reached safely and successfully.

“I-Word” #1:  Protecting through Imitation
Without a doubt, children tend to imitate their parents, whether humans or geese. I enjoyed watching Grant and Grace as they modeled survival skills for their seven goslings. For example, the “kids” followed Dad and Mom and imitated the search for food and the “hunt and peck” skill that led to lunchtime. Similarly, the parental pair relied upon imitation to safeguard their goslings from danger. Through observation and imitation the little ones learned the skills that were basic to self-protection.
Human children watch their parents, observe their behavior, and imitate their actions. These replications may bring fits of laughter from amused parents or howls of horror from frightened parents. The good news is that the children will imitate their parents’ self-protecting behavior; the bad news is that many parents’ behavior is not self-protecting. Unfortunately, many parents engage regularly in activities that pose great harm and danger, such as substance abuse, reckless driving, anger outbursts, and other high-risk behavior. Confusion and conflicts arise when parents behave in such a manner, and then they demand that their children refrain from the same activities. I’ve heard many teenagers in therapy complain about their parents’ hypocritical lifestyle. They can’t see the difference:  “Why is it wrong for me when it’s okay for them?” Clearly, the self-indulgent, uncontrolled parent presents a model that is irresponsible and ineffective. Such parents need to get their act together about self-protection before expecting their children to practice effective self-protection.
Imitation is a vital component in fulfilling our protector role, assuming that our example is positive and workable. While our modeling of positive self-caring behavior cannot guarantee that our children will choose the same life-style, at least our efforts will represent reassurances that our children will choose wisely and will therefore travel safely in their journey toward adulthood.
“I-Word” #2:  Protecting through Information

Responsible parents understand the importance of relevant information to effective child-rearing. They protect their children through sharing specific information that is necessary for survival and success in life. They explain to the children why certain activities or situations are potentially harmful and why they represent a type of “enemy” that should be avoided. Admittedly, the concept of “threat level” is often hard to explain to inexperienced children. A “clear and present danger” ranks much higher on the “threat level” scale than does a situation with only potential harm. Parents try to get the children to understand those threats and to trust that the current “house rules” are established and enforced because the rules are safeguards for health and safety. Children gain survival information directly from parental teachings and indirectly from parental examples. Additional information is gained from other adults and from outside-of-home activities (like school, church, etc.).
When parents share information that relates to tools and techniques for self-protection, they hope that the recipient children will use that information for their own safety and well-being. That being the case, Dads and Moms need to learn well and to use often the skill of being good “informers.”
“I-Word” #3:  Protecting through Instruction

Instruction takes information to another level. Children are taught how to apply and use the provided information in an appropriate manner. They are instructed how to use their self-caring behaviors until those behaviors become a personal skill.
For example, concerned parents provide information to their children about the dangers of fires and storms. Then the parents use that information to instruct the kids in skill-building so that they will know what to do and how to react in the event of a fire or storm emergency. To make certain that the skills are intact the parents may schedule surprised “emergency drills” to provide opportunities for reinforced learning. This same process is replicated for instructing the children in other self-caring areas. Additionally, parents can enroll their children in special classes in which they will receive instruction from expert teachers in areas like self-defense, dealing with bullies, and defensive driving. Mental health professionals and family therapists are also helpful community resources, particularly in regard to the development of self-defensive skills for emotional protection.
“I-Word” #4:  Protecting through Insulation
Insulation is another important type of “child protective services.” Children are not meant to be reared in a literal “bubble,” but there are times when they must be insulated from potential dangers. Toddlers are insulated in that they are not allowed to play in the yard without direct supervision. An older child is allowed to play in the yard without supervision but he is forbidden to play in the street because the traffic poses a threat to safety. Younger children require more insulation than do older children. As a child acquires more self-caring skills, the amount of insulation is decreased as the level of exposure is understandably increased. By the time the child reaches “launch age” he should no longer need parental insulation. Essentially, he has learned to practice “self-insulation” in that he knows when and how to distance himself from people and activities that pose a threat to his personal health and safety.
In summary, parents fulfill their protector role by equipping their children to take appropriate care of themselves. Parents accomplish this goal by implementing the four “I-Words”: Imitation, Information, Instruction, and Insulation. Used consistently and effectively these tools will help us as we enable our children to travel safely in their journey toward adulthood.
Concluding Thoughts . . .

The role of “Protecting our Children” is a challenging part of our parenting journey, especially since the Parenting Highway is bombarded by many types of threats to health and safety. I hope that the ideas presented here have been of benefit and encouragement to you.  The next article will focus upon the need for a protection program that is well-balanced so that extremes can be avoided. In that article we will also explore the usage of leadership and courage in dealing with resistant kids and abusive parents.
I wish the best for you in your parenting travels and in all of your relationship journeys!

*Adapted from “Keepers of the Springs,” Marshall, Catherine (1950).  Mr. Jones, Meet the Master.  New York:  Fleming H. Revell.

 Other Resources: If you are looking for additional information about parenthood, check out the list of helpful books and relevant websites on the Parenting  category under Resources (from the Home Page), or just click here.
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