Parenting “Big Picture” Kids

In his classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey encouraged individuals to “begin with the end in mind.” As a parent, I find this advice invaluable, as there are so many “ends” and methods of parenting available. Of course, there are many aspects of my kids’ development and behavior beyond my control. Still, to the extent I have any influence, it would seem best to channel it toward my deepest dreams for them.

So, what do I really want for my kids?

Many things, actually. But, what if I were to narrow down my dreams for my kids to a few? What is most important?

In this post, I want to reflect on the insights of a particularly intriguing parenting book called “Never Say No: Raising Big-Picture Kids,” by Mark and Jan Foreman (parents of Jon and Tim Foreman of the popular band “Switchfoot”).

According to the Foremans, the goal of parenting is not to keep a child safe (a goal that often seems most evident in my sometimes anxious parenting behavior). Rather, the goal of parenting, as stated by the Foremans, is to nurture “a big-picture child who loves well.” In other words, parenting ultimately prepares kids to contribute their gifts to a world in need. This positive frame of reference resonates with me as I think through what I’m trying to do as a parent.

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In my view, the Foremans’ book highlights four major ways parents can nurture kids to be open to the “big-picture.” I’ll discuss each of these below.

1. Openness to a spiritual life.

As psychiatrist Robert Coles has discussed, children often are attuned to what adults call “the spiritual life.” Kids spontaneously ask spiritual questions, for example, such as from where we came, to where we’re going, and how beauty came to be. However, as the Foremans point out, kids quickly “adapt to running on two tracks: what they must memorize as irrelevant facts and what actually benefits and engages them in the real world.”

Often times, adults push religion down the throats of kids – emphasizing rote behavior and memorization – rather than helping them to connect with what they’re experiencing spiritually and bridging those experiences with the stories and insights of their traditions and communities. Part of parenting “big-picture” kids, then, is affirming the questions of our kids and being open to sharing our own questions, stories, and tentative conclusions about topics of interest to them. Another aspect to this is introducing them to sources that connect with their inner lives, such as a religious tradition, holy text, the majesty of nature, nourishing reading materials, and meaningful, age-appropriate opportunities to serve those less fortunate.

2. Openness to relationships.

The title to this book – “Never say no” – is not a statement about discipline or boundaries – occasions where it absolutely is necessary to say “no” to ourselves and others. The focus of the book is on saying “yes” to a parent’s relationship with a child. If a child wants to play a game, for example, the counsel is to “never say no.”

In his book, “Finding Flow,” Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi noted that parents and kids do best when they engage in activities they find mutually satisfying and absorbing. Parents can “bring children into” activities they love, sharing a passion and nurturing kids’ skills along the way.

It is more of a stretch when a child is interested in an activity that the parent is not. The Foremans note that parents would do well to “stay curious, continually adding to our repertoire of experiences.” Surely, there is truth in this, and part of that is to be a role model of engagement to children.

I may be misinterpreting the Foremans on this point, but I think it’s important to note that it’s okay for parents to have boundaries and to say they’re just not interested in some activities with which kids might want to involve them. This role models boundaries for children. In fact, there are times in which it might be really good parenting to convey to a child that they engage in an activity on their own so it’s clear that the passion really is theirs and not the parents.’ For instance, as noted by John Tauer in his book, “Why Less is More for WOSPS (Well-Intentioned, Overinvolved, Sports Parents),” many parents seem to have a difficult time allowing their kids to participate in youth sports without their constant presence, often times to the detriment of both the parents and the child.

3. Openness to the world.

This brings us to the third point, maybe my favorite highlighted in this book. As discussed by the Foremans, part of the goal of parenting is “broad exposure,” with depth following breadth. Put another way:

“Life must be interesting to foster interesting kids.”

For example, as a parent wisely considers how to limit a child’s time on passive technological entertainment, it is helpful to consider more productive alternatives that may be equally or even more engaging.

In order to help their kids become actively engaged in culture, the Foremans focused on five areas intended to:

  • Build an awareness of history to develop objectivity
  • Expose them to the common good to develop a timeless taste
  • Introduce them to various global cultures to see differences
  • Talk about current events to foster analytical thinking
  • Take them to the edge to discover their purpose

To elaborate on just one of these points, the Foremans advise engagement in the important ideas and events of the day. For instance, we can ask our kids questions such as: “Why do you think all the refugees are fleeing that country? Did you know that one in six people in our country struggle with hunger? What do you think about half of the kids your age spending more than forty hours a week in front of a screen?… What do you think our state should do about the drought? If you could, would you buy an electric car?”

Questions such as these encourage kids to realize there is a world in need that they might feel called to do something about.

4. Openness to their own interests.

Ultimately, the Foremans point out that this broad exposure is intended to help kids to identify what they’re personally passionate about. As parents, it’s important to observe what activities consistently seem to bring our children energy – what brings them alive – what makes their eyes light up with excitement – and to mirror that back to them. We then can encourage activities that build on these interests for their own sake, and to protect our kids from starting to think that they’re engaging in these activities as solely as means to extrinsic ends.

Some kids’ interests might be more obvious, while others may require more time for sensitive listening. In either case, the goal is to provide a sketch of who the child is, provided by someone that loves them very much, as Parker Palmer puts it in his book “Let Your Life Speak.”

For those of us who have kids, parenting is perhaps the greatest responsibility of our lifetimes. By providing the conditions necessary to nurture their openness to spirituality, relationships, the world, and their own interests, we are enabling them to launch into lives of service, meaning, and purpose. And, what could be more worthy of our efforts than that?

For more of my thoughts about parenting, see my post on “How I Try to Parent.”

For more on the Foremans’ perspective on parenting, the following video from Q also may be helpful:

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