"Good parents give their children Roots and Wings." – Jonas Salk
The first time I heard this quote, it made me think. The two sound contradictory – roots and wings: one to tie us to the ground and the other to enable us to fly away.
As I thought about it, however, I realized that, in fact, it clearly summed up the two primary responsibilities we have as parents: to provide a safe, nurturing environment in which our children can grow, and to prepare them for the time when They will "leave the nest."
So how do we give our children roots and wings?
Of course the roots come first. We provide a safe home where our children develop a sense of belonging, and where they can grow and become strong.
To help our children develop strong roots, we can learn a few thing from gardeners. They will tell you that, when you first plant a seed, you do not see any progress for some time. The seeds send down their roots into the soil first, long before the tiny shoots appear above ground. So the gardener learns patience, trusting the natural process.
As parents, we need to have the same patience and trust the process.
Roots serve two purposes: they give the plant stability, by going deep and holding it to the ground. They also provide nourishment through the water and minerals that are drawn in.
Stability and nourishment. We parents provide the same things.
Of course, by providing for their physical needs – a home, food, clothing – we create the framework of stability. But there is so much more.
We also need to provide an atmosphere that is nurturing, supporting, and safe – emotionally as well as physically. In this way, we give our children a sense of belonging and security.
Just as plants draw water and other nutrients from the soil to support their growth, our children depend on us for their nurturing. Our words of encouragement and appreciation, our guidance, and especially our love – these are the nourishment they receive from us.
To provide a stable and nurturing home for your children:
- Create an atmosphere that is loving and welcoming, so it feels good to be home.
- Communicate gently, with respect and consideration.
- Establish clear expectations and reasonable consequences.
- Treat them like valued members of the family.
- Encourage their creativity.
- Respect their ideas, even if you do not agree with them.
- Have fun together.
Where do wings come into this picture?
Once our children feel safe and secure, we need to prepare them for the time when they will leave that security and to go out into the world on their own.
I remember watching flyingling bluebirds in our back yard. For several days before they finally flew from the nest, they took turns thrusting their heads out the opening of the bluebird house and flapping their wings wildly, as if they were going to fly.
I became aware that they were strengthening their wings for the day when they would finally fly. I also fantasized that they were building up their courage.
After several days of practicing, one-by-one the birds flew from the nest.
It is not so different with our children. Of course, for our children, the process takes years instead of days. As they try out their wings, they can be very disruptive – so little room in the nest for those big, flapping wings.
So how do we support our children as they strengthen their wings, while preserving the serenity of our home?
We must NOT try to keep a fledgling from doing what comes naturally. If we do, we are interrupting a natural process and setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment.
How do we help our children find their wings?
Our job is to be sure that they have the skills necessary to succeed in the world and the self-confidence to take that huge leap out the door when their time comes.
The process of fledging starts early – long before they are ready to fly.
While our children are very young, we can begin to teach them how to be responsible and to contribute to the family.
Even pre-school children can be expected to put toys away and to help with household chores. This helps them to feel capable and it provides the beginning of a good work ethic. Responsibilities can increase as our children are able to handle more, but they should always be balanced with free time and opportunities for play, because children learn and grow from those as well.
This comes with practice. As we give our children responsibilities and gently support them as they are learning, they will also learn to believe in themselves.
Confidence also comes from the ability to make decisions. In order to prepare our children for the outside world, we need to give them many opportunities to make their own choices. We can start with the insignificant things, such as what to wear and how to fix their hair – then gradually move to the more important decisions with real consequences.
To give your children wings:
- Give them responsibilities early, and increasing with time.
- Help them develop values by your example and by setting definite limits.
- Give them choices early and increasingly as they are able to handle them.
- Give them permission to explore and make mistakes and experience the results of those choices – not as punishment, but as a way to learn what works and what does not.
- Help them find their gifts – find what they love – so they will have passion for life and a sense of purpose.
When we do our job well – when we help our children develop strong wings – yes, they will fly away.
But if the roots are strong enough, they will always fly back to us – not to stay, but to share with us the wonderful things they are discovering and creating in their own lives.
Maybe to say "Thank you."
Maybe just to get another good dose of the love that helped them to be who they are.
Then we get to see that we never really lose our children, as long as they know there is something worth coming back to.