The Character Movement

The Boat Strategy

By Josh Johnson, Youth Frontiers Retreat Director and Youth Corps Manager

My wife and I are often considered the “progressive” or “cool” parents by our daughter’s friends. For example, we let our 15-year-old daughter, Reese, get a nose ring. It wasn’t a difficult choice to make, but to be honest, it wasn’t a choice I was completely thrilled with either. I knew the very moment that Reese displayed that little hole in her nose that the backlash would begin. I imagined walking through the high school during conferences, hearing another kid tell her parents, “Reese’s parents let her get a nose ring, can I get one?!” The parent would quickly declare “no” and shoot my wife and me a dirty look.

Our so-called progressive parenting, however, is not the reason for allowing a piece of jewelry in my daughter’s nose cartilage. It was actually a strategic parenting strategy.

It’s a strategy I learned from a mentor called the “boat strategy.” Imagine you are on a boat with your child. When your kids are elementary-aged, the boat ride is often smooth and the waters are calm. Because of the calm waters, you can bring quite a bit of luggage on the boat – stuff that you like to have control over. This “luggage” often includes what they wear and eat, who they spend time with, what time to come inside from playing and other important, essential stuff.

Your journey continues and all of a sudden, a storm by the name of adolescence rolls in. Things get a bit crazy as the waves of hormones, emotions and independence rock the boat. Water starts splashing into the boat and it looks as if the boat could sink!

What do you do when it feels as if the ship is going to sink? You need to let go of some luggage. You need to make some hard choices of what to “control” or you could lose your child in the waves of the storm.

Choosing which luggage to release isn’t an easy choice. Your child, now a teenager, wants to stay out later than you want! They want to go on a date with someone you don’t like! They want to get a nose ring!

Some parents wisely and slowly let go of control and throw this luggage overboard, thus preserving the relationship with their child. Others hang on so tightly to controlling every aspect of their teen’s life that when they look around the boat they realize their child has jumped off.

When all is said and done, in my opinion, the most important thing is that my child is still in the boat – that my relationship with my kid is preserved.

Through my youth work experience, I have seen many parents make their parenting more about rules than relationship. Then, when the child gets on their own, they struggle with navigating because they have never had the chance to captain their own boat.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting a passive parenting style where you let your kids do whatever they want. I’m talking about a style of parenting that values relationship over rules. Rather than saying “don’t do this, don’t do that” when your teen goes out, you get to say, “I love you and, based on our relationship, you know what is right and I trust you to make a good decision.”

Throwing off this “control luggage” doesn’t start in the middle of the storm. The successful sailor slowly and wisely throws some luggage off before the storm even starts. My wife, Tammy (a very wise sailor), has taught me this and continues to teach me. Even when my kids were elementary age and younger, she extended respect and healthy freedom to my kids by “majoring on the majors” and “minoring on the minors.”

I would love to say I am good at this. Frankly, throwing over the luggage of nose piercing was easy. However, future significant choices will be difficult and complex and I want to make sure that when that storm arrives, my kid is still in the boat with us.

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