On Parenting


February 21, 2014 by Jay Helms

Standing on the deck of a lovely small house in the coastal lands of South Carolina, I noticed that Sam was sitting by himself with an open chair next to him. As I made my way over to sit next to the newly married 22 year old, I quickly sorted through a list of questions to ask the only son of a man who is one of the key global agents of change in the church. Every question I thought of was cliche, and I knew those would not produce a meaningful conversation. After sifting through the obvious questions one question came to mind, “What did your parents get right with you and your sisters?”

I listened as Sam shared several stories that could all be traced back to a simple answer, they were “students of their children.” They studied their children. They paid close attention to their children. Mike and Sally really knew them. 

The next evening, when the opportunity presented itself I approached Sam’s dad. I was intrigued to hear more about the Breen’s insight into parenting. As the conversation deepened Mike shared that they parented their children in five stages, which all happen to be C’s: Caretaker, Cop, Coach, Consultant, Collaborator. This was as clear as any description of good parenting as I have ever come across. 

Caretaker – Ages 0-1

In this stage, the primary responsibility of the parent is to care for the needs of the child. This does not mean the parent caters to the child. Rather it means the parent maintains a safe environment for the child. One of the mistakes that can be made in the caretaker stage is for parents to completely reorient their life calendar around the child. Parents can be free to bring the child along on their activities. They will have to make changes, but they do not need to shut down their lives to be good parents in this stage. In fact, it is vital to continue to make investments in other relationships during this stage as they will impact future stages of parenting. 


Cop – Ages 1-6

In this stage, the primary responsibility of the parent is the same as that of law enforcement. The child answers to the parent. This does not require being harsh or distant. It is however, fearless law enforcement. A cop keeps everyone in line and creates a safe environment for life to thrive.


Coach – Ages 7-12

A significant mistake that a percentage of parents make is to fail to make the transition from Cop to Coach in a timely manner. A 10 year old needs a coach, not a cop (or a consultant or collaborator for that matter). A coach focuses on effective communication and sharing of information. The child is beginning to have their very own thoughts and impact on the world. A coach explains and lets go, while still remaining engaged. Players are the ones who actually play the game, and a coach knows that. A cop says yes or no, in order to prevent trouble or to discipline and maintain order. A cop controls. A coach directs, teaching players how to think and read situations. There are occasions when a coach tells players exactly what to do and demands that it be done as asked. Good coaches pay attention to communicating both the big picture as well as the details where needed.

A coach says, “Never say I can’t. Always say I’ll try.” A coach says, “This is going to be tough, but here is how you should approach it.” A coach uses words skillfully. A coach allows players to be in difficult circumstances at times. Remember the sea turtle named Crush from “Finding Nemo”? His wisest line was “Let’s see how Squirt does flying solo.” In order to maximize the positive impact, a coach needs to offer both encouragement as well as challenge. 


Consultant – Ages 13-21

The transition from coach to consultant is as difficult as any other transition. A consultant is there to help a person live their life, make choices, embrace learning, discern, communicate, plan for the future and overcome failures. A consultant is less involved on a daily basis, but every bit as involved on a weekly basis. This is not a hands off phase in relationship. The consultant has sophisticated conversations quite often. Compared to a coach, there is a good deal more reviewing and visioning that a consultant brings to the table. Yet the responsibly for living life is largely left in the hands of the youth in this phase. 


Collaborator – Ages 22 and Older

Parents and children now work together as equals with differing levels of experience, insight, wisdom, and history. Each is valued as equal contributing partners working towards a shared vision. 


Working through these four give parents the best means to build trust and to equip growing children for adulthood and all of its requirements and demands. It is important to recognize these four serve as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. There are cases when a different stage of parenting is best, depending on the issue or life circumstance. 

These give a parent a way to view their child’s development in areas such as money management, education, athletic training, musical skills, handiwork skills, communication skills, personal care (clothes and room), and time/life schedule management. 

On How We Relate to God Similarly

I have noticed that there is a connection between these four and how we all may relate differently to God at different moments and stages in our lives. If we have primarily a “Cosmic Cop” (or Killjoy/Buzzkill) view of God it is likely we are seeing that relationship with the vision of a toddler. What does a toddler who never progresses do beside entertain others? Not much. Yet it is easy to have this sort of relationship with God. If we see God as someone we consult when we have needs or wants, we are likely viewing our Heavenly Father with the perspective of a teenager. 

Jesus came that every one of us might work towards a Collaborator relationship with God. However we cannot simply jump to that stage off the bat. We have to humble ourselves to journey through the first three stages before we can experience the joy of knowing our Father’s heart to the degree that we can be powerful collaborators with Him as we live with a shared vision. 

After Jesus was resurrected, he had a collaborator conversation with a man who had once let him down, but was going to be very important to the future of the world shortly thereafter… Again Jesus said, “Simon (Peter) son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” John 21:16, 17 



4 thoughts on “On Parenting

  1. Shannon says:

    I thought of a “C” word for the pre-cop stage of parenting. Caretaker! Starting to feel more and more like the cop here! 🙂

  2. Wow, this is excellent. I was looking for this type of resource for parents of teens that I work with in counseling. Solid work!

    • Jay Helms says:

      Thanks, Justin. I appreciate that. It’s helpful to find something that matches the stages of the journey of growth that young people make their way through. It’s particularly helpful in reminding us of the need to adjust our actions at the beginnings of the new stages as kids age.

  3. Stephen says:

    There’s a book waiting to be written using these stages as a guide – divided by genders, I’d think. On a personal note, I’m battling with an 11-year-old in my house now and I can clearly see it’s because I’m attempting to police rather than coach someone who is almost prepared for being consulted. Oh my, do I have some changes to make! Thanks!

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