When you think about it, it's easy to see why a lighthouse is a great metaphor for parenting. A lighthouse is a beacon that leads ships to shore. Its guiding light is always visible, stable, and constant, just at a distance. If parents are the lighthouse, then children are the boats, and as lighthouse parents we trust in their ability to sail on their own, while keeping them from crashing on the rocks. So it should come as no surprise that I believe there are things you can learn from lighthouse moms, because while we're not above making mistakes, I feel confident in saying that, for the most part, we've got this whole parenting thing figured out.
The term "lighthouse parenting" was coined by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, Co-Director at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, in his book Raising Kids to Thrive. According to Ginsburg, parents must strike a balance between dependence and independence when it comes to their children. It's about giving kids the space and freedom to learn within a blanket of safety. They say there's nothing new under the sun, and honestly, lighthouse parenting sounds a lot like Love and Logic, which is how I was raised. In this approach, parents give their children choices within , boundaries, allow them to make "affordable mistakes," and hold space for natural consequences with a foundation in compassion and empathy.
I'm an Xennial mom, so I tend to shy away from the extremes of parenting. I've seen a lot of parenting fads come, go, and even blow up. As a teacher, I saw how helicopter parenting led to an epidemic of learned helplessness. I've seen kids crushed by the pressure to succeed by tiger parents. But I wasn't willing to go completely free-range, either. I'm a worrier, and I need to be a little more hands-on than what's required of a free-range mom. When I heard about lighthouse parenting, it sounded a lot like how I was raised and how I wanted to raise my child. For me, it provides the best of both worlds: protection with guidance and choices with limits.
Perhaps most important, lighthouse parents are thinking about the kind of adults they want their children to become: resilient, capable, and independent. When the waters of child-rearing get rough, parents can look to these central tenets of lighthouse parenting for help, from me — a lighthouse mom:
Love Your Children Unconditionally
This sounds obvious, but it is absolutely fundamental to lighthouse parenting. Make sure your children know that your love is without conditions. Their confidence to navigate the world depends upon it.
It's important to note that although your love is unconditional, your approval is not. You can love the child without loving the negative behavior. My favorite phrase: "I love you too much to let you act that way."
Set Your Expectations On Character, Not Performance
Lighthouse parents set expectations that are realistic and age-appropriate. They focus on effort as opposed to outcome and growth over perfection, which builds character, resilience, and a growth mindset.
Lighthouse children are held to high moral standards. I know I'd rather have a kid who plays with a classmate sitting on the buddy bench than one with a 4.0 (although my inner Asian mama says good grades would be nice, too).
Failure Is An Opportunity To Learn
I can't emphasize the importance of allowing children to fail enough, as long as their failures do not put them at risk for significant harm. Many people look at failure as something to be avoided, but it is through failure that we learn.
You won't find any lighthouse parents jumping to their children's rescue over forgotten homework or when they've tripped over the toys they were told to put away. Nature provides for consequences that teach life lessons. It is so much better for kids to learn from their mistakes and experience consequences now while they are relatively minor.
Check In & Communicate
Lighthouse parents are good listeners. They use "I" statements and refrain from accusatory or judgmental language. When kids are facing a problem, lighthouse moms and dads ask, "What do you think you might do about it?" before dispensing advice. However, lighthouse children know that they can always go to their parents as sources of wisdom.
Be Protective, But Not Overly So
Ginsberg says that parents must walk the fine line between "trust" and "monitoring." So, a toddler parent watches their little one on the play set from a nearby bench while the parent of a teenager expects check-in texts but doesn't put a tracking device on their vehicle. Remember, you're not a shadow or a statue. You're a watchtower.
Nurture Coping Skills
Failure, disappointment, and conflict are a part of life. We do our children a disservice if we keep them from experiencing it. We're better served by teaching them to cope with the full range of human emotion.
Self-regulation techniques like breathing exercises and talking through possible solutions not only help calm a child down, they also build their confidence in their abilities to handle situations on their own.
Take A Step Back
Helicopter and tiger parents have the tendency to be over-involved in their children's lives in order to ensure achievement. Lighthouse parents, on the other hand, do not immediately jump to the defense of a child who is reprimanded by a coach or fails a test. Likewise, they let a preschooler pack their lunch or tie their shoes on their own.
In all situations, the parent is there (at arm's length) for support and advice. The message to the child is, "I trust you to solve your own problems, but I'll be here if you need me."
Set & Enforce Boundaries
Free-range parenting promotes autonomy and responsibility both early and often. Although they also prize free time for exploration, lighthouse parents provide more limits for their kids. We know that boundaries and routines can help kids feel safe, as long as they don't stifle them.
I won't allow my child to explore the neighborhood on her own yet (she's 2), but she can toddle around the driveway and yard (and do pretty much whatever she wants) if she stay in my sightline.
Allow Your Child To Make Choices
Children need to learn to trust the inner voice that guides them. If all their choices have been made for them (by well-meaning parents for their supposed benefit), they will be easily swayed by negative influences. It's hard to make the decision not to drink and drive when you've never even been allowed to choose their color of your socks.
It can be as simple as chocolate or vanilla or boxers or briefs, but over time, kids who are allowed to make their own decisions will develop the sense of self that will keep them safe and sound when we're not there to protect them.
Be A Model
As the parent, you have to be the calm in the storm. You set the tone. If you're going to have high moral expectations for your child, you better uphold them yourself. Don't make excuses, just accept the repercussions of your behavior with grace and humility.
Life is full of ups and downs, and in the still-developing minds of children, that rollercoaster can be overwhelming. It's up to you to be the their stability; the constant light that shines in the dark and guides them home.