Parents are essential in a child's upbringing. But they can't do it all.

Parents can be forgiven -- and should be applauded -- for wanting the best for their kids. But a key part of parenting is getting out of the way.

Dave Munch/Caroll County Times/AP
Children try out new playground equipment at the Friendship School in Sykesville, MD

Parents are essential in a child’s life. But you knew that. Parents devote themselves to feeding, teaching, supplying, cleaning, correcting, comforting, and driving (in the sense of encouraging and also in the sense of dropping off and picking up) the kids.

Parents know they are indispensable, which is why they spend so much money and time trying to give their children the best possible upbringing. They can’t help it. Children are living arrows shot into the future, as the poet Kahlil Gibran memorably put it. The children of 2010 will be midcentury parents, teachers, politicians, and business leaders. They will be feeding, teaching, supplying, and driving the adults of the 22nd.

Important and influential as parents are, a child is at the center of his/her own powerful social network, which was launched at birth and expands at warp speed. No matter how caring and worthy of a child’s attention a parent is, children absorb information from all directions. Gravity is learned from the hard surface of the floor, the uncertainties of the natural world in the growl of a dog, lessons in commerce from lunchtime cupcake swaps. Along the way, of course, kids also pick up bad rhymes and ancient annoyances like the “nah nah, NAH nah nah” taunt.

We were all children once, so we know how this works. It isn’t fair to our elders. Parents (and their surrogates, teachers) have deep and credible knowledge and have sacrificed time and treasure for us. They deserve respect. But comic books and TV cartoons, urban legends that kids tell each other, and the innocent fumbling through young friendships aren’t exactly nothing.

I learned, for instance, how to use randomized numerical selection in choosing sides for a team sport by employing the “One potato, two potato, three potato, four” formula (also the “Engine engine number 9” method and several more that have since been rightly banned as inappropriate). I learned about common interests when I made fast friends with a kid who had the same Zorro lunchbox. I learned about judgmentalism from the “sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g” razz. Parents set the scene but weren’t directly involved, except to buy the lunchbox and to intervene when disputes escalated.

Rushworth Kidder, a former Monitor editor and columnist who founded the Maine-based Institute for Global Ethics, recently wrote a book called “Good Kids, Tough Choices: How Parents Can Help Their Children Do The Right Thing.” He believes parents are misleading themselves if they think they can control every variable in their children’s lives. The best path, he says, is not to teach kids what to think but how to think.

That can be difficult for supercaring “helicopter parents” (a colleague of his recently heard an executive talk of her three kids as her “little cost centers”). The good news, Rushworth says, is that studies show kids don’t come into the world as blank slates. They are making moral choices as early as 3 months old. Not everything, in other words, is on the backs of the parents.

Every enduring children’s classic – “Tom Sawyer,” “Nancy Drew,” “The Famous Five,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” – is about brave and innocent children making moral choices. This can go wrong. Children can behave badly (see “Lord of the Flies”). It can go right. The 50-year run of the Peanuts comic strip showed both possibilities. Neighborhood children – and one self-assured beagle – negotiated a complex set of relationships with one another. Charlie Brown and Lucy, in particular, had what we’d call “issues.” They worried and schemed, fought and fretted like adults. Sometimes, like both adults and children, they rose above it all. The saintly Linus was a particularly good example of that.

Children can’t work it out all on their own. They need parental guidance. Parents can’t fix every childhood hurt, cover every contingency, or fund every cost center. They can set the right conditions, though, so that kids’ innate values expand along with their social networks.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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