It is freeing to me to think that there is not a list of "Seventeen Things You Must do to be a Perfect Parent and Have Your Children Turn Out Well." Even if someone were to write such a book, our children won’t read it! So, they won’t know how they are supposed to respond when their father or mother does point number seven or point number fourteen! Of course, there are principles of parenting that God revealed thousands of years ago in his Word and we can read and apply today. Good parenting involves familiarizing ourselves with these principles and applying them as best we can in our family context. Principles of parenting offers freedom for the parent to respond to the need of each child within the framework of God’s will. A list of seventeen or any other number of rules for perfect parenting is not really parenting; it is manipulation. Parenting is a relationship built on trust; manipulation undermines that trust and foils relationship.
Moms and dads generally approach parenting from two different extremes. One extreme is freedom or liberty for the child to speak and behave. Generally, this approach believes that a child’s personality and creative bent can be hindered if restraints are placed upon him. A child needs to think, explore and experience all different kinds of things, and from these experiences he learns what is right and wrong and what he likes and doesn’t like. He is also forming the building blocks of his personality, character and future career choice. Any limiting of the child’s desires or actions could interfere with this development.
I understand the concern of these parents. But I am also concerned about what such liberty will do to a child in a negative way. I knew a college professor who taught psychology and who held to this freedom-approach to parenting. He believed it was wrong to restrain children through any means other than reasoning with them and, when that failed, pleading with them. "Ok kids, please clean your rooms. Please. Please?!" Or, "Kids, don’t yell at your mother, and don’t call her stupid. Your mother has a right to her opinions, too. Please kids, be nice to her. Stop that." This man allowed his kids freedom of speech and behavior. One day, one of their sons who was about eight years old at the time got very belligerent toward the mother. When he stepped out onto the front porch she locked the door to keep him out. When found he was locked out, he became extremely angry, yelling at his mother and demanding to be allowed back in! When his mother didn’t allow him entry, the boy literally kicked the front door in. No parental action was taken against the boy.
In my opinion, this approach to parenting produces monsters. Children raised with too much liberty in decision making and behavior begin to think that everyone and everything else exists for their enjoyment. They become abusive verbally and physically. They do not learn internal discipline. Later on, as older children, teenagers, and even adults, they will act out against anyone who tries to restrict them. They never learn to respect parental authority, so they never respect any other authority, either teachers, policeman or God. Furthermore, these children never learn the principle of behavior having consequences. If they are allowed to hit their little brother or sister and never get in trouble for it, then why should they get in trouble if they hit another child at school a few years later? Or, when they are adults, if they speak harshly toward a co-worker on the job, why should they get reprimanded for that? Or, if they steal candy bars or cars, why should they get in trouble with the law? The permissive style of parenting never prepared them to understand the principle of actions having consequences.
One of the worst examples of this I personally witnessed was a teenage boy who was driving recklessly. He passed me on a country road going at a high speed. A few miles further along I came upon a horrible wreckage: this boy had struck a van being driven by an older man. The collision projected the boy out of his jeep onto the grass. He was relatively unhurt. The man was killed. A few weeks later I was talking to a friend of this boy, and asked how he was doing. The friend told me he was doing ok. In fact, his parents bought him a brand new vehicle so he wouldn’t feel so badly about the "accident." "Do you think that is teaching the boy a good lesson?" I asked. The friend became very defensive of his high school classmate, and said there was nothing wrong with what the parents did for their son. "But what about learning about consequences for his criminal behavior?" I followed up. The thought didn’t seem to register with this friend or with the parents of the reckless driver. So, I doubt it had much opportunity to register with the driver. Drive too fast, pass recklessly, kill someone, get a new car. This young man was being trained with a permissive approach that was preparing him to view life as his playground where everyone else existed to satisfy him.
There are parents who have seen this liberal approach to parenting and have naturally recoiled from it. They have seen the monsters and don’t want to raise any themselves. So they run to the opposite extreme, and in the attempt to avoid permissiveness they can become too authoritarian. Their approach is to so dominate their children that they will not have bad desires or behavior. They will not rebel because they won’t be allowed to! They deny them any opportunity to make decisions and explore their little domains.
This approach works for a while, but it too has its pitfalls. For one, people will submit to that level of control for only so long. When children are little they must be thoroughly controlled for their own safety and health. But as they get older they want to question, examine and explore. Under the watchful eye of concerned parents they can pursue their curiosity in safety and within limits. As they grow older and more mature, the limits on their behavior can be expanded to allow even more freedom, still under the control of the parents.
But if a child is denied any liberty to question and make decisions on his or her own, he or she will eventually rebel against that. It may not happen until they are eighteen and leave home. At that point they have total freedom to choose! And often times they make very destructive decisions. Even though they may never have engaged in destructive behavior while they were younger, they did not abstain because they were taught to or were mentored to develop character or the ability to show restraint. In an authoritarian home they simply were not allowed to participate in destructive behavior. But, they likely were not given the insight into why they should not participate and were not given the discipline to refuse participation. So, went they got out on their own they were not prepared for the freedom and they abused it.
BALANCING THE EXTREMES
The two extreme styles of parenting moms and dad can gravitate toward are permissiveness and over-control. Neither extreme is helpful to the children. A better approach to navigating these extremes is to find a balance between them. James Dobson says, "Healthy parenting can be boiled down to these two essential ingredients: love and control ... Any concentration on love to the exclusion of control usually breeds disrespect and contempt. Conversely, an authoritarian and oppressive home atmosphere is deeply resented by the child who feels unloved or even hatred." [James Dobson, The New Strong-Willed Child (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2004), p.103.]
Neither permissiveness, which is sometimes misconstrued as love, nor authoritarianism, which is sometimes misconstrued as legitimate parental oversight, are healthy for a family. Neither extreme fosters respect for the leadership role of the mother and father. The leadership role is one of authority, not to be confused with authoritarianism. Authority means you are in control, yet respect the rights and dignity of those you lead. Authoritarianism means you rule with an iron-fist, and do not respect the rights and dignity of those you lead. An authoritarian spirit crushes those it rules over. This may be something of the spirit Paul warned against in Colossians 3:21 when he wrote, "Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged."
You might think also of an umpire in a baseball game. He is in charge of the game. He makes decisions that you can argue, to point!, but not change. The umpire alone has the authority to change his mind about a call and alter it. An umpire may call a runner out, and even though everyone else saw the play differently, the umpire’s call is the one that stands. You can argue with him as vehemently as you choose, but when the argument is over, the umpire will still be in the game while you may be removed from it!
How does an umpire establish his authority? From the very beginning the umpire’s authority is established by his equipment: he wears a uniform that sets him apart from everyone else, he has protective gear, such as a face mask, a brush for the plate and a counter to record statistics by each inning. An umpire’s authority is further established by his demeanor on the field. He does not have to walk out onto the field barking orders. He can walk out straight and confident, and everyone picks up on the fact that this man is in charge of the game.
I have seen umpires behave beneath the dignity of their position. I’ve seen umpires lose control, erupt in anger and get in arguments with fans and yell at coaches, "Shut your mouth!" Such umpires are trying to impose an authoritarian flavor on their role, but they are not winning the respect or confidence of the players, coaches or fans.
In the same way, parents can act in anger and assert an authoritarian posture. They can threaten, holler, and, when they totally lose self-control, beat their kids (as distinguished from spanking). These parent may force certain behavior at a specific time, but they are not securing the confidence and respect of their children. A consequence of this is that they are not planting their values and ethics in the child. Only when their values and ethics become a part of the fabric of the child will those values and ethics guide the child in his or her life.
As parents, we want our children to respect us and to obey our voice. When they are young that means we want them to clean their rooms, not jump on the sofa, pet the dog gently, not throw temper tantrums, stay out of the road. When they are older, respecting our authority means they will not engage in dangerous behavior (e.g., drinking), will date someone who reflects the family’s ethics, will go to college and eventually get a job. We can’t force those behaviors over the long haul. All we can do is train and discipline consistently over time, with authority, and allow this kind of character and ethic to be planted, take root, and grow within them. It is the action of a secure parent that produces this kind of long term goal, not the anger of a parent who is insecure in his or her position, or is too permissive, and whose temper erupts when the child has disobeyed.
"Anger does not influence behavior unless it implies that something irritating is about to happen. By contrast, disciplinary action does cause behavior to change. ... How much better is it to use action to achieve the desired behavior and avoid the emotional outburst." ( The New Strong-Willed Child, pp.78&80).
It is a constant, ongoing challenge of parenting to balance love and control, to discipline with consistency, and to act out of commitment to firm action and not anger.
ROOTS AND WINGS
Ultimately, I think the goal of good parenting is to provide our kids with roots and wings. Roots are the orientation we give our children to the family values and ethics. Roots are the family traditions that we incorporate our children into, traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas at grandma and grandpa’s, visits with the "Cookie Lady" (one of my great-grandmothers, who always brought cookies with her when she came to visit us), church, work and other important family activities that function generation after generation.
Roots are what give our children identity when they are away from us. When our son or daughter is in a new environment, and they are free to create the identity that they want with their new group of peers, roots are what direct them to uphold the values and traditions they were raised with. Even in a new environment, without any external constraint to behave a certain way, roots will direct them to be honest and moral. Roots will take them to worship, work, and back home for the holidays. Roots are the voice that whispers in their ear: "Remember who you are. Remember how you were raised. Live right, don’t break your parents’ heart."
We need to give our children roots, so that when they are raised and have left our home and formed their own, they will continue to pass on to their children the same values they received from us. But giving them roots is only part of what they need from us. We also need to give them the freedom to leave us. The freedom to leave us means they might experiment with a lifestyle we don’t approve of, or they may even leave our lifestyle altogether. But the freedom to leave us means they are also free to choose to live as they were raised. The freedom to leave means they have wings, and we give them those wings. The roots we have given them means they will always be oriented to the values of their upbringing, and the wings we give them means they are free to go off and use those wings to form their own lives and families.
After his prom, a high school graduate was invited with a group of his friends to another student’s house for a party. He’d never been to one of the groups "parties," and decided to go for a little while. This evening was a celebration of his graduation. His parents gave him permission to be out later than usual. He was about thirty miles from home. This new graduate had a lot of "freedom" to fly on his own that night.
At his friends house all the students gathered in one room, many of them sitting on the floor around the room. Soon, several guys began carrying in the coolers filled with beer. In just a moment he was the only one sitting there without a drink. "Come on, don’t you want one?" "No, I don’t think so. Not yet anyway." Several times he was invited to participate in the party rather than just watching it. Each time he said, "No thanks, not yet." Then, he suddenly stood up, thank his friends for the invitation and said, "I really must be going," and before anyone could object to his departure, he promptly left the house.
The ride home took half an hour. All the way home he wondered what it would have been like to join in what looked like so much fun. "Would I have gotten drunk off only one or two beers? Would it really matter, just this once? Would it really kill my Christian witness? Would it permanently mar my "record" of trying to make good choices?"
At the same time, the student was glad he didn’t compromise at that house. There was another time or two when he caved in and had a drink, but not this time. He said, "No," and he left when it kept getting harder to stand by his conviction to not drink.
His thirty-minute ride home that night was a long one. He was home by 11:30 on the night of his prom and banquet. Every one else in his family was already in bed asleep, and soon he was, too. The next day was, well, just another day. A day without regret, without worries, without any negative ramifications. But in another way, it was a day of victory.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but years later he realized that the roots his parents had given him kept him secure that night in his family values. At the same time, the wings his parents had given him that night to choose his own course were directed by his roots. The young man did make his choice that night, without his parents or anyone breathing down his neck. There was no authoritarian, "You better do what I say!" bearing down on him. There was no angry threatening from a parent that he better choose well! Instead, there was the confidence of the mother and father in this young man that their years of training and nurturing him would pay off. His parents trusted that when he took his flight that night, he would fly well. That thirty-minute drive was one of the most important of his life.
No child will choose well every time, either when they are but small children in our home or when they are older and venturing out on their own. But what we work and pray for is the proper direction. If their course is in the direction of heaven, their flight will go well.
Principles of Parenting: (Use Proverbs)
1) Balancing love and control
2) Using action instead of anger in disciplining.
3) Disciplining with consistency, firmness and love.
7) Family bonding (Prov. 4)
8) Teaching responsibility
Warren Baldwin July 2006