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Marny Stebbins.

For many years, we sat in the front row of church with our four young children. On purpose.

With mismatched tennis shoes, absentee socks and an occasional Halloween costume, we were a family circus – full of untrained monkeys and overly confident acrobats, partial to loud “bathroom announcements” and unfiltered observations.

Woe is he who had digestive challenges in our earshot – because discreet was not yet in our vocabulary.

My instincts scolded me each time we made the trek up front. “Retreat! Retreat! Find anonymity in the back row behind the organ, with the coughers and the nursing mothers! You didn’t pack enough provisions to take this type of risk! For God’s sake woman, they had raisins for breakfast – its just a matter of time before they reappear.”

Don’t try to be brave, Mama.

But, surprisingly, front row seating encouraged our best behavior on Sunday mornings. There was less goldfish throwing and more coloring…on paper. Less army crawling and more shoe swinging. Contrary to my predictions, the closer we were to the action, the more our behavior improved. Right there – in front of the altar – our tornado went from an F5 to an F2, and any mother of four will tell you, an F2 is the normal weather pattern on any given day. It was a miracle.

My instincts were wrong.

It’s true, I have been wrong about a few big things along the way. For example, the boat did float with all of us onboard and we do enjoy hours of time spent together in a small buoyant container navigating the St. Croix River (after the initial thirty minutes of bickering about lifejackets and snacks). Especially if we include a visit to Selma’s ice cream shop.

The trip to South Dakota was somehow worth the 27 hours in the cramped minivan, a urinary tract infection and a visit to the Rapid City Emergency Room (thereafter referred to as “Rabid City”). Wall Drug was not.

Camping is fun – with good food and dry tents. Bonus surprise, my children can indeed have access to an open fire and not die. Roasting marshmallows does not have to end with burnt eyebrows and an impromptu haircut (although I have photos from college to prove it CAN happen…).

And, of course – the puppy. Blame it on the rollercoaster of hormones my body endured with four babies in seven years, but I fought hard against adopting a puppy. Ruth-Bader-Ginsburg-hard. I was convinced, like the spring frogs we captured in buckets and then accidentally let fry in the hot July sun, puppy ownership would end in a backyard funeral by the end of the week.

However – more than not – my instincts have been spot on. If a science project requires more than five ingredients- the reasoning behind it is over a ten-year-old’s head. Stomachaches are linked to test anxiety not breakfast cereal, impromptu sleepovers are a bad idea at any age and if black pants have had time to be ironed…they no longer fit. Closed doors always mean trouble.

As a mother, I fight the urge to keep the world small for my children, because small is manageable, small is safe. Stillwater is pretty darn small. But does my instinct to keep their world small also keep them small? Does my innate preoccupation with protection inhibit the very growth they need to thrive in the larger world?

Do my intentions to protect them from all harm actually deny them the right of healthy perspective and self-awareness, and more importantly…growth?

My instincts, sheepishly, nod yes.

If we never give them the chance to make mistakes, aren’t we ensuring they never truly know how to make amends? How to endure? How to forgive? How to experience grace...

When I am still, and ignore the vanity and judgement which accompany raising “successful” kids, I can hear – buried deep below a need for control and fear – a quiet, but steady voice telling me to …. let them choose. As hard as it is, let them navigate when they can.

They will fail miserably, because they are human and our most genuine voice is often muffled by the loud bark of insecurity. We all have the ability to stir up our own F2 storm.

But, someday – given the opportunity – they will fly. Not because they avoided the front row for so long, but because they learned that every seat in the house requires courage. Sometimes we will find ourselves in the front row, other times the back row (or even face down in the middle of the aisle) but all that matters is that we keep showing up, keep claiming a seat.

Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.

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