I’ve been working on this blog post all day and getting nowhere. That might have something to do with my sleep debt, which is starting to make our national obligation to the Chinese look like no big thing, but it’s probably also because I don’t really have any authority to speak on the subject, my eldest being only 10 and not exactly proof of the validity of my claims. She’s a good girl, but what 10-year-old isn’t a good girl? So I’ve decided to treat this post as a thought experiment, and you can feel free to shoot down my arguments. Or you might take more satisfaction from holding onto your objections and hoping you get to laugh in my face 10 years from now.

As any reasonably interested mommy knows, there’s all kinds of talk in the parenting world about sheltering kids. What food do you allow your children to eat? What kind of safety precautions do you take with their health? Do you protect them by vaccinating or from vaccines? Do you allow them to eat and sleep where and when they want or keep them on a tight schedule from day 1? Video games or no video games? Is Sesame Street rotting your child’s brain? Is Frozen going to teach your child to support the gay agenda? (No joke, that one’s for real).

And then there’s this gem that I read the other day about a dad who decided to shelter his 12-year-old daughter from Instagram after a week of mental thrashing and writhing.   His daughter asked him if she could open an Instagram account. She had already gone to her mom and been told no. Daddy and daughter convince Mom it’s fine, and they set up some sensible ground rules for use and start the account. After a few days of merry Instagramming, Daddy and Mom are horrified to learn that the site is not just for posting pictures of food and cats. Kids comment, follow each other, and a boy from the daughter’s school is using it to “run a match making program that makes suggestions on which students should hook up with each other.” The parents suspend their daughter’s account and take a week to reflect and pray about how they should handle the situation. Their instinct is to put an end to the whole thing, but they wonder if they should trust their daughter and leave her free to make her own choices. Eventually, they decide to shut down the account. He says he should have backed his wife from the start and that when one of them feels uncomfortable with something, they should show a united front to the kids and shoot the idea down together. Then he talks about what an over-indulgent parent he tends to be and how he doesn’t like to say no to his kids, but that he doesn’t want his daughter exposed to a site where her peers, “joke about drugs, talk about being in love, say nasty things about themselves, or make suggestions on whom to make out with. I also worry that a forum like that is a perfect place for kids to act out as bullies or to over sexualize each other.”

On the one hand, his sentiments are very sweet. He wants to protect his daughter, and even when it’s difficult for him, he puts in the effort to be the best dad he knows how. But on the troll hand,

in what sense is he a father?

He tells us right out of the gate that these are his daughter’s peers! She spends more waking hours of the day in this cesspool than with Daddy and Mom. The kid with the match-making machine goes to her school. Daddy just spent a week reflecting upon and discussing the best way to tell his 12 yo daughter, “keep it at school, Honey. Mom and I don’t want to know about all the disgusting and destructive things your peer group is into. In the future, don’t ask us to have anything to do with that messed up world you’re entering when you step onto the schoolbus.”

Daddy just lost his opportunity to have any influence on the way his daughter perceives drug use, bullying, sexualization of children, self-hate, and misconceptions about love. If you’re going to send your kids into that den of corruption every day, Daddy, please, at least be willing to witness a fraction of what they’re experiencing.

And this brings me to how I shelter my own kids. I’m sure it looks somewhat schizophrenic to an outsider, because, yes, I hope my kids will someday reap the same benefits of intellectual stimulation and community involvement that I get from social media, but no we don’t watch TV at our house.  I intend to watch SNL reruns and Seinfeld with my teenagers, but no, I don’t let my kids play with Barbies. No, I don’t think gay marriage will have a corrupting influence on my children, but yes, I object to Frozen and every other Disney movie. Yes, I hope my kids will leave home for several months or even a year during their high school years, and no, I don’t do sleepovers. I’m waiting to introduce sentimental love stories like the later books in the Anne of Green Gables and Little Women series, but I’ll likely introduce books with pretty tough themes – books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Animal Farm and Frankenstein, in middle school. And that’s because I shelter with a PLAN.

I have to agree with some of the really strong Christian families that compare childhood to starting seedlings. Over and over, I read these lovely mothers’ descriptions of how we shelter and protect a tiny tomato plant to let the roots grow strong and able to withstand the bright sun and strong winds before transferring it to the garden. But last year I learned that in cold climates, it’s necessary to “harden off” those seedlings before you put them in the ground. When the seedlings are getting close to ready to plant, you take them outside in the afternoon. First you bring them out for an hour, then the next day you bring them out for two hours, the next day for three hours, and so on, until the plants are accustomed to keeping their wits about them in the real world. It can stunt their growth, so you don’t want to put them out too soon or they may never reach their full potential. And you don’t want to wait too long, or the plant will be too large for the small, indoor container you’ve kept it in, and the hardening will be too much for an already over-taxed root system to bear.

That’s how I approach sheltering my children. I want them to be full participants in all the good things the world has on offer, so I’m making a career of helping them develop the tools they need to do so. I don’t want to stunt their creativity or teach them that there are a list of questions that must never be considered lest we come across the wrong answers. While they’re growing, I protect them fiercely. I don’t want my kids to waste an ounce of energy attempting to upgrade a body that is already wonderfully beautiful and will attract all kinds of attention from the opposite sex without any changes, I don’t want to see them sighing over Prince Charming/ogling princesses or trying to fit themselves into an acceptable behavior box. I want to feed their spirits. I want them to be completely engaged in growing like mad while their brains are elastic and they are so free they don’t even understand what a horizon is. So to facilitate that early growth, I won’t allow any distractions into our home.

No Barbies. None of my kids will ever look like her or meet anyone who looks like her, and unlike unicorns and teddy bears, Barbies imitate life. They are close enough to the real thing to make kids feel like she is the ideal. Her clothes look better on her than anything will ever look on an actual human being.

The sleepovers of my childhood were where I learned about the dark side of my girlfriends. I was pretty oblivious of all the cattiness during our regular play dates, because we were busy building forts and baking microwave cookies and painting our nails, but at night, we sat around talking about other girls. It was neither uplifting nor educational. We don’t have time for that kind of nonsense at our house.

Screen time is limited. Even the educational games and shows are an earned treat because screens are such easy entertainment. If easy entertainment is always available, there’s no reason to get creative. For the same reason, sugar is also an earned treat. I doubt my kids would beg for asparagus if cookies were readily available.

My kids are aware of the origins of babies. Having animals is a great way to introduce the birds and the bees without any fuss. They vaguely know about girls and boys and the silliness inherent therein, but I do not in any way encourage it. We don’t have dress up wedding clothes, we don’t watch or read princess garbage (here is my post on why I hate princesses), we don’t do Disney, which is obsessed with the princess-waiting-for-Prince-Charming dynamic, and I don’t give the kids love stories to read. They don’t know that I’m doing this, and if any of them begs to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I’ll gladly hand it over and we’ll have great conversations about it. But for at least a little while longer, there is no pining in this house.

We don’t bring anything into the house that has ads for children. I want them to decide what they like and what they want. Target would like to do that for them. Target’s interests conflict with our family’s interests.

It would be impossible to keep those things out of my kids’ lives if I didn’t fill in the gaps. Kids watch TV because they’re bored. Girls dream about Prince Charming because they’re not actively engaged in meaningful and rewarding work. It’s great to limit mental junk food, but if wholesome food isn’t available, your child will eat from the trash can or starve. Here’s what fills our kids’ cups. Your mileage may vary –

Music. When Eve started piano lessons, she was 6 years old. Her grandma’s nickname for her was, “anxiety girl.” I’ve never met a more uptight kid. But when she sat at that piano and made a beautiful sound, her shoulders softened, her head tilted to one side, even her back looked smooth and relaxed. Within a couple months, she was spending an hour or more practicing every day. Our 3 big girls play piano and violin, our 5-year-old is also on violin, and all the kids participate in a wonderful singing and theory class called Kodaly. You should hear my 2-year-old sing. Adorable. They love to make music! Some of them require more reminders and encouragement to practice than others, but they all value it and take it seriously. Since my husband has started playing banjo, they are even more enthusiastic about their lessons and practice. Making music as a family has been a revelation to me. Every child wants to play his part, to add to the sound and make it better. Even the 2 year old is serious about shaking her tambourine. No one has to tell the children that each part is valuable and important. They can hear it. They want to make it better and when they do it, they feel a confidence and pride that can only come from actual accomplishment. I’m sure there are other activities that can replicate this experience, but music was an easy choice for our family.

Free time. This one is getting more and more difficult as the kids become more serious about their music and school work, but I try to make it a priority. It’s a pain to give kids actual free time, to leave them free to make a mess, ignore their school work or the chores I want done, but they need it. Their relationships with each other are so much stronger if I give them a day every week or two to get out every plastic animal and lego and wooden block in the house and take over the living room or the dining room, or to invade the kitchen and make inedible cookies and a cake that tastes like sawdust and lemon-flavored glue, or to use old sheets and table cloths to make a 1200 square foot fort in the pasture. When kids, especially a group of kids, are wild and free, they learn executive function. It takes a lot of cooperation to play intricate games in a group. When the 5-year-old flat-footedly refuses to be the Uncle, intense negotiations ensue. Everybody in the group depends on everyone else, so when they work together for long hours at complex play, they are learning to self-regulate and plan ahead in a way that no other activity or lesson can match. If you’re interested in this idea, you can read more here.

Art. When I was a kid, I visited a friend of the family and she had a table in the play room with all the markers and crayons a kid’s heart could desire. I was in love. I swore I would have that for my kids. We do have an art table, but it’s never as neat as that family’s was. That might have something to do with the difference between 2 kids and 6 kids, but regardless, art is a great outlet for children. Every child has pictures in his head that he’s dying to put on paper. My big girls love projects. Sometimes they just tell me what they’re going to do and I listen and obey (i.e. buy), sometimes they tell me what effect they want and I help them figure out how to achieve it, and sometimes I make suggestions or leave an art book open to a certain page so they can discover it themselves. Making something beautiful with their own hands, trying something new and difficult, and even more importantly, learning to fail and try again, or fail and be happy with the result, builds tremendous confidence. Kids who know they can will.

Good friends. This should need no explanation, but I’ve seen enough parents screw this up so badly, that I’ll go ahead and lay it all out for you. There are two parts to making this work well, but first, let’s be clear. Kids want to be social. If you don’t facilitate healthy social interaction, they will find a way to make friends you don’t like. Unless you chain them up in the basement, you will not prevent them from having friends. Ask me how I know. Every kid wants to be liked. If kids don’t know their own value and don’t understand the variation inherent in human beings, they will do whatever it takes to be admired. “Whatever it takes,” will often be something the parent is not happy about, so helping your child learn to have good friends starts before she cares about the matter. She needs to be her own person if she is going to negotiate the world of peers in safety. Confidence is a direct result of skills. Whether it’s music, sports, art, working on cars, gardening, hunting, hiking, or photography, a skill set will help your child to feel that she is good enough to be liked and admired. She won’t feel the need to engage in risky or unhealthy behavior to get noticed. The next part of helping your child have good friends is a little more difficult, but it’s still do-able. You need to surround her with a variety of good kids. If all her friends have the same interests and act the same way, she will feel pressure to conform or be bored and on the lookout for a nonconformist. I’m a big fan of nonconformity, but I’d also like to make sure that my kids are emotionally healthy nonconformists. Most kids who flagrantly reject societal norms are doing so because they have been deeply hurt. Adults have a duty to reach out to those kids, but a healthy teen is more likely to be damaged by a hurt teen than to help her. I encourage my kids to invite friends over who are confident, happy and engaged in worthy pursuits. My weekly goal is to have the kids so busily and happily engaged in good work with good people that they don’t have time or patience for things and people that don’t lift them up. As with everything else in a child’s life, a wide variety of good things to choose from will generally end with the child making a good choice.

Good books. When someone visits our house for the first time, they hear about all the Important Things, and the kids are always anxious to show them the library. It’s a toss-up which stop is first on the tour – books or instruments. The kids are immensely proud of the library we’ve built (and continue to build). When we visit thrift stores or garage sales, they all make a bee line to the books. They feel responsible for developing a first-class library. They don’t want junk in there any more than I do, and they don’t want to miss a single good book, even if they’re not ready to read it yet. A good selection of entertaining, wholesome books will make any kid want to read. And for those kids who still find reading more work than pleasure, there are audio books. Librivox is your friend in this regard. Audio books are a wonderful way for little kids to develop great reading comprehension, vocabulary, and even logic. When an 8 year old is reading voraciously, he’s generally reading at a 2nd to 4th grade reading level. That same 8 year old can enjoy listening to stories that are far, far above his reading level. This list is a great place to start with audio books.

I know a thing or two about sheltering gone wrong. I was extremely sheltered until I graduated high school, and then I was more or less thrown to the wolves. From the ages of 19-21 I learned more and grew more than I did my entire life before or since. I was so blessed, so very, very blessed to avoid dabbling in destructive things. I credit my safe passage through that time to three things; the mercy and protection of my Heavenly Father, the kindness and generosity of a few wonderful people who helped and guided me, and a great library growing up. All those good friends I made as a kid – Johanna Spyri and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Madeline L’Engle and John D. Fitzgerald and C.S. Lewis and a hundred others, had built in me a bedrock of desire to do good, of knowledge of right from wrong and of virtue from vice. So now I want to give that to my children.

So far, we feel like our plan is working. I’ll keep you apprised.