Gatekeeper or guide?

By Benjamin Schoendorff

Life is a jungle. And if as parents, our job is to bring children into the world and let them loose in that jungle. OMG! No wonder most of us parents regularly panic.

Today’s blog is based on a lovely metaphor by our Australian friend Darin Cairns. Darin works with kids and their parents. He is really good at what he does. For Darin, faced with the jungle of life, parents can either be gatekeepers or guides. A gatekeeper’s job is to make sure people do what they’re supposed to do and don’t do what they’re not supposed to do. Gatekeepers insure that rules are followed. For their part, guides seek to inspire and walk alongside the visitors. They understand their clients’ needs and do their best to prepare them for a great adventure!

In the jungle lurk untold dangers, some are devious and mortal. But that jungle can also be a garden of plenty, overflowing with delicious fruit, wondrous creatures and breath-taking vistas.

When our babies are born, our first role is that of gatekeeper. They are absolutely helpless and defenceless, aren’t they? But we can’t be gatekeepers for life either. So, our mission is to guide our little ones toward autonomy and help them fend for themselves and carve in the jungle of life a satisfying and meaningful existence.

Fellow parents, our fate is to transition from gatekeeper to guide. Where a gatekeeper spells out rules, a guide’s role is to describe what the visitors will see if they go in this or that direction. Becoming a parent guide takes consistency. It means giving indications that will gel with what our kids will experience when they follow them. It also requires meeting them where they are. We need to know how to take their perspective and validate it by reflecting that we get what they feel and how they see things.

It’s not easy to become a guide parent! It often means facing the fears that would push us to work overtime as gatekeepers. Dishing out rigid rules can certainly give us a temporary sense of security. The downside is that our kids find themselves robbed of opportunities to discover how to learn by themselves, in light of their experience. Their growth as autonomous jungle explorers get stunted. There’s also a good chance that they themselves will become more rigid and less adaptable to an ever-changing world.

 

Staying on as gatekeeper has a cost. Kids are less well-prepared to fence for themselves. Our relationship and closeness with them also takes a hit because folks are less inclined to confide in a gatekeeper than in a guide. Kids of gatekeeper parents are thus often less equipped to face up to the inevitable hardships of life, and less skilled at ferreting its treasures.

To grow as a guide parent, it’s better to describe what is going to happen in positive terms that what won’t happen. Reflexively, most of us has a tendency to formulate things in negative terms as in: “if you don’t do your homework, you won’t get to play on the computer”. Yet we could just as well say: “when you do your homework, you’ll get to play on the computer”. In this manner, we turn into a guide pointing to the goodies more often than warning of what to avoid. This will encourage our little wonders to seek out the marvels of life rather than to seek to move away from the bad stuff.

Say you could choose, which type of parent would you be most proud to be? In a future blog, we’ll look at 11 steps that can help parents become awesome guides.