I have been reading through a federal review of Missouri’s foster care agency. The headlines are alarming, proclaiming that Missouri lost track of many children in its system. When I read the review, however, it became clear that the vast majority of the missing “children” actually are teenage runaways. It is true that these teenagers are not legal adults, but it is also true that they have agency. As I noted on my legal blog, any solution that denies the fact that children are capable of self-determination is doomed to fail.
For the same reason, we as parents and stepparents have to recognize that our children have their own independent wills. They can (and will) choose whether to accept us, and we have no control over that decision. Raising a child is not like following a recipe, where we apply the right amounts of caring, structure, and encouragement, mix with love and pull a great relationship out of the oven. Children have their own decision to make about our relationship.
Of course, we can and should stack the odds in our favor by being (or trying to be) patient and caring and generous. But we cannot do those things in order to get our kids to accept us. We should do them because it is the right thing to do and the right way to treat our children.
Recognizing that our children have free will can be incredibly freeing. We no longer have to take complete responsibility for their actions. Of course it hurts when they reject us and watching them make life-altering mistakes can be incredibly sad. But it is their life and their decision. We only have responsibility for our actions, not theirs.
Giving our children space to make decisions also improves whatever relationship we have. Rather than constantly trying to motivate a child to accept us or our advice, we can learn simply to be available when they think they need us. We can care about them without hovering. Giving them that freedom to make their own decisions creates a baseline of respect that automatically enriches our interactions and increases the odds of a healthy relationship.
So the next time someone tells you that all you need to do is love your children enough, just smile and remind yourself that they are wrong. Love is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Our children are their own people, and they will make their own decisions about how to live their lives. We can guide and advise and hope, but in the end, it is their life and their decisions will control.