Our family has spent 8 of the past 16 years in France – and if there’s one thing that I’ve noticed is that they take a decidedly different approach when it comes to teaching kids to do certain things. Yes, our kids had four-course meals subsidized by the state at the cafeteria at the public school as part of their exposure to and appreciations for gastronomie, as it’s expected that learning about good food and developing an appreciation for taste is an endeavor worth investment. But there were other things that I noticed French parents and teachers tended to do with kids that were different. Two examples really stuck out to me at the time, and reflecting on them, it seems they may be telling examples of how north-American desires to protect our children at all cost may be affecting their ability to mature – even in matters of faith.

The two that I found almost jarring at the time were:

  1. When a young child in France is not yet old enough to ride a bike on their own, they get a draisienne, a small bike with no pedals. {Which strangely – now seem to be a trend among cool parents all over north america} Starting very young (2-3 years old), French children learn to balance on two-wheels, pushing along with their feet. Then – once they have mastered the balance, coordination, and skills required to manoeuvre and stay upright – it is actually a rather simple step to adjust from locomotion by pushing your feet on the ground to stepping on pedals.
  2. When our youngest son was about 4 his class here in France had swimming lessons. He really couldn’t swim at all, so he was in the group of beginners. I was the parent helper one day, and I stood alongside the pool watching the instructor take these small, somewhat scared, floundering kids – and very quickly has them in the 2m deep pool. They’re hanging on the edge, but quickly let go. Then by the second lesson or so, they swim out to the lane-divider and back. And many of them go under – at least for a split second. And he let them.

These two different got me thinking about how (at least from my experience) these times of training tend to go down in north america.

It seems to me that in North America we tend to move from tricycles, to bikes with training wheels as our path of developing the skills of cycling. The training wheels in some ways are helpful – but in many ways just give a false sense of confidence. They give you a belief that you are actually doing something you’re not. It seems like you can ride a two-wheeler – but you can’t. The training wheels are always there. If you start to even lose your balance at all – “CLIP” – the training wheel skips on the sidewalk, sending you back upright. The problem with this approach can be that kids can get left like this for years.

I also remember swimming classes with our oldest back in Canada. The way I recall it, the kids basically weren’t even on the pool deck before they had life jackets on, and we spent who-knows-how-many weeks allowing them to ‘get comfortable with the water.’ Blowing bubbles was actually a skill that was checked off on the evaluation at the end of the course.

We don’t want our kids to get hurt, and this is understandable. We don’t want them to be scared, which seems normal. However, you can’t learn to balance a bicycle unless you know what it feels like to have to balance it for yourself, and you simply cannot learn that without falling.

I do want my kids to have a healthy fear of water, I don’t want them to be ‘comfortable’ about the dangers of a pool, I want them to understand that it can be fantastic fun, but also deadly.

How many kids are raised in Christian homes – where the parents don’t want their children to get hurt, so they are surrounded by safety, precaution, and protection. We don’t want them exposed to anything potentially harmful, so we screen everything they see, hear & read, make sure we know who their friends are, and ensure that no ‘worldly’ influence will bring them down. We want them to stay “safe” – but we remove any opportunity for them to develop the skills (discernment, judgement, wisdom) that will be required for them to actually do so.

But like the inevitable fall from the bike – it will eventually happen. Your child will at some point be exposed to pornography. They will have to deal with racism. They will be tempted with lying, cheating, stealing. They will have kids they know who smoke, drink, take drugs, and whose parents are fine with it. Just like they will eventually be faced with riding a bike on their own, or swimming all alone – the day will come when they realize that they are indeed doing it on their own. The parents/training wheels/life jackets are suddenly noticeably absent.

The question becomes – will that moment be the first time they have ever had to do it on their own? Or worse, will it be the time they realize they can’t actually swim, that they can’t balance a bike? Have they been pulled along on a tag-along bike behind their parents, without the need to steer, or brake, or even pay attention to what’s going on around them. Heck, they don’t even have to peddle that hard, and maybe Dad won’t notice. But then they get sent off on their own – and we are shocked at the bloodied mess they become. We don’t expect, or perhaps even want them to learn to ride a bike by themselves before they start school, and then are shocked when that same attitude backfires on their spiritual development.

I’m sure all of us can think of people we grew up with (or maybe it’s us) who’s parents were so concerned about protecting, sheltering, and keeping form harm – that when they finally left home – and the life jacket came off – and none of those abilities that the parents thought were developed were actually there. They couldn’t make good judgments on who to hang out with, they didn’t have any discernment on the limits of their own self-restraint – they realized that for the first time they were in deep water well over their head – and they had never had any experience with anything like that before.

Of course, I’m not saying just let your kids figure out things on their own – to me that is no more responsible than throwing a child in the water and hoping they will learn to swim. But perhaps we need to back off just far enough for kids to see the results of their own decisions – in order for them to actually develop the strengths that we want them to have.

Yes, watching your 6-year old’s head momentarily dip under the water is a bit scary. Seeing your 4-year-old girl fall from their bike and hearing the smack of her helmet against the concrete is not pleasant. So is watching your 11-year-old struggle with making wise decisions about friends, and not making the right choice. So is seeing an 8-year-old have to deal with hard issues. But in my mind, its better than the alternative – having to wait for them to realize much farther into their lives, that they have not been doing it on their own all along.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying this is easy – or that I do this well. This observation is as much for me as it is for anyone else. Simply consider it a reminder that if we over-protect our kids in any area of their development – we are not likely doing them any long-term favour.

It may be more painful – for us even more than for the kid with the skinned knee, or the poor choice in friends – but probably better in the long-term.