The parking lot was jammed, and people were swarming in and out of the main entrance.

I took Cody’s hand. As we got closer to the doors I explained that he’d have to hang on to me. With all of the people it would be easy to get separated.

As we entered the mall I mentioned that the hobby shop was coming up. As soon as the words were out of my mouth he let go of my hand and bolted ahead of me. For a few seconds I lost him in the crowd. But then I saw my little blond guy weave through some shoppers to end up in front of the big window. By the time I got there he was staring at the Lionel train moving just inches from his eyes.

I squatted down next to him and mentioned that I didn’t want him running off like that. I pulled his chin over so he had to look at me and said again that I wanted him to stick close.

“Right, Dad.”

We looked at the toys in the window for several minutes before going inside. The store aisles were thick with people, so I took his hand-for about five seconds. He saw a man demonstrating a remote control car toward the back of the store and sprinted ahead to check it out.

Once again I got his attention long enough to tell him to hang on to my hand. And once again his words acknowledged that he heard me…but every thing else about him said he wanted to watch the car.

Back in the mall we walked about a hundred feet when he saw some children gathered around a lady reading a book. In a second he was racing ahead to take a seat among the children.

It was obvious from Cody’s actions that he felt confident to be a carefree little boy and to let Dad worry about his safety. And I was more than willing to worry about Cody’s safety, but somewhere along the way I had to prepare him to look out for himself.

We took a right to head down one of the main thoroughfares of the mall. Cody loosened his grip on my hand and eventually let go. He wandered in a big circle around me, looking at the various displays in the windows. He wasn’t the least concerned about sticking close.

So I hid.

I slipped into the crowded racks of clothes at the entrance to a store. They provided perfect cover as well as an ideal vantage point to keep an eye on my boy. It bothered me how long it took him to realize I wasn’t around. But when it struck him, the panic was immediate.

He started running around in circles through the crowd, looking at every man who passed. His anxiety increased by the second. It was hard to hold back. Especially after the tears started flowing.

As soon as someone stopped to help him, I slipped out from behind the clothes racks. When he saw me he charged over as fast as he could run. When he came into my arms I was glad he was only three. If he’d been much bigger the impact would have sent us both flying across the parquet.

We sat down so Cody could get composed and I could ask some questions. We reviewed what happened, what he felt, what he did, what he should have done. We talked about how it could have been prevented and also discussed a better plan of action if he ever found himself in that situation again.

I call this a “designed dilemma.” It’s creating a situation or an environment in which children are forced to focus on their needs as well as draw conclusions about their lives.

A loving legacy must be transferred, not just given. It must be embraced and appropriated into the core of our children’s hearts. We can’t be satisfied with modeling (as important as that is). We must develop lessons for our children that compel them to wrestle with (and therefore remember) critical truths.

Designed dilemmas lend strong support to one of the most worthy of all ambitions: Raising kids who turn out right.

Our efforts on our children’s behalf can save them from a world of hurt, and can allow them to enjoy the fruits of disciplined love for a lifetime.

Copyright ©  1998 by Tim Kimmel. All rights reserved.